Destinations: the Elk Crossing at Oconaluftee Visitor Center

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By Michael Williams

Elk were once abundant in the Great Smoky Mountains. Many early settler and indigenous people hunted the large burly beast which provided ample food and skins for clothing. Elk may dress out at 300 pounds or more. One large elk could provide a frontier family with ample food for the long harsh winters that often made travel in the mountains impossible forcing residents to stay close to home during those frigid months wiling away the hours battling boredom.

Due to over hunting elk became extinct in Tennessee soon after the Civil War. The last elk killed in North Carolina was slain in the 1700s.  By 1900, the population of elk in North America dropped to the point that hunting groups and other conservation organizations became concerned the species was headed for extinction.

A primary mission of the National Park Service is to preserve native plants and animals on lands it manages. In cases where native species have been eliminated from park lands, the National Park Service may choose to reintroduce them.

The reintroduction of elk began in 2001 when the NPS 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Laws regarding the conservation and hunting of the elk were quickly put into place preserving these majestic creatures.

Elk are large animals. Females can weigh 500 pounds and stand taller than a car. Males can weigh as much as 700 pounds. They are larger than black bears and can be just as dangerous.  Female elk with calves have charged people in defense of their offspring. Males, as known as bulls, may perceive people as challengers to their domain and charge. The best way to avoid these hazards is to keep your distance.

Visitors to the Oconoluftee Visitor center are encouraged to admire these creatures from afar. The elk routinely cross a path that extends across the highway within sight of the Visitor Center. Next to the Visitor Center is a large pasture where the elk frequently graze and become the objects of admiration for many shutterbugs anxious to get a photo of the beasts.

Visitors are advised to never touch or move elk calves. Though they may appear to be orphaned, chances are their mother is nearby. Cows frequently leave their newborn calves while they go off to feed. A calf’s natural defense is to lie down and remain still.

The use of spotlights, elk bugles, and other wildlife calls are illegal in the national park. It is also illegal to remove elk antlers or other elk parts from the park. Never feed elk or other wildlife or bait them in for closer observation. Feeding park wildlife is strictly forbidden by law and almost always leads to the animal’s demise. It also increases danger to other park visitors.

When visiting the Oconoluftee Visitor Center be sure to bring a camera as there may be plenty of photographic opportunities. But, remember for safety’s sake, admire these animals from afar.

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