If you think Appalachian bears are big animals, you haven’t seen anything yet. The grandest of all the mountains, the majestic elk, is the master of the mountains. Though their numbers have dwindled over the years, you still have a good chance of spotting an elk in the fall, when many leaf lookers take to the hills.
Elk are kin to deer, but are much bigger. Full-grown cows, as female elk are called, weigh in at around 500 pounds, bulls at about 700. Considering that a baby calf is born at about 35 pounds, that’s a whole lot of growing. Adults can reach five feet tall, and the antlers on a bull’s head can extend another four feet.
Historic Love Affair
Native Americans loved these large animals — and not just for the rich, fatty meat they provided. The Indians used the soft, beautiful elk hide to make clothing, blankets and even tents. The natives fashioned the elk teeth and antlers into weapons and tools.
The majestic elk needs space to roam, and even though it can make out pretty well in many different environments, today elk are harder to spot than they were when settlers first entered the southern Appalachian Mountains. About 10 million elk roamed the mountains at their peak, but now, there are only about one million left in all of the U.S. Hunting and loss of their natural habitat led to the disappearance of the great beasts in Appalachia.
In 2001, the National Park Service brought 25 elk to the Tennessee-Kentucky border to reintroduce the species into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Service imported another 27 elk in 2002. The North Carolina Cataloochee Valley now hosts between 150 and 200 elk. In Tennessee, the elk population exceeds 400, a number that Virginia officials expect to attain by 2018. In Kentucky, a herd of about 10,000 elk flourishes.
Fussin’, Gruntin’, Muddin’ and Stompin’
Elk are a lively social bunch. They rely on different screeches, grunts, whistles, bugles and bellows to communicate information to each other. Mothers can even recognize the voice of their baby calves. Elk also use movement and gestures to express fear, reel in a cow that’s straying from the pack, or show anger.
While elk are social, they aren’t all that organized. Cows, calves and yearlings stick together in casual groups. Bulls tend to stay solitary or run with groups of other bulls… except during mating season, which is known as “the rut.”
Elk mate in the fall, and calves are born between May and June. During mating season, bulls corral a group of cows into a group called a harem. Bulls engage in all sorts of showmanship during mating season. They even get down and roll around in the mud and coat themselves in urine as part of the ritual to attract mates.
Respecting These Mammoths
Elk are a sight to see, and many people go out of their way to catch a peek. Although they aren’t normally aggressive, elk should be treated with respect, as they are quick and powerful. Their moods also tend to go a little sour during mating season, as competitiveness is high and tempers can flare. If an elk interrupts whatever they are doing to notice you, it means you are too close.
Actually, it’s a federal offense to get within 50 yards of an elk in the any of the National Parks. The Park Service recommends remaining by the roadside and using binoculars, a telephoto lens, or a spotting scope to catch a view of the animals.
In 2015, only Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky have allowed a limited number of elk hunting permits, which are given out by a lottery system. West Virginia may allow elk hunting in another year or two. North Carolina does not permit hunting these great beasts.