Permits granted to harvest destructive elk
While wandering elk may be a welcome neighbor for some farmers and landowners, they have become more of a nuisance lately in the Maggie Valley, Jonathan Creek and White Oak neighborhoods.
But over the past couple of years, the stately animals have become a nuisance for some farmers and landowners.
While the Great Smoky Mountains National Park monitors activity of the elk on federal land, the Wildlife Resources Commission is now in charge of the elk that wander off federal property.
Recent problems with elk destroying crops and scaring cattle led the commission to issue depredation permits to two Haywood County farmers allowing them to shoot and kill an elk if found on their property again.
Sgt. Andrew Helton said wildlife officers partner with state wildlife biologists to investigate each case that alleges severe damage by elk. When a problem is identified, they exhaust all options before settling on exterminating the animal.
In one recent case when an elk was bothering a farmer’s crop, biologists used rubber buckshot as a scare tactic, which seemed to work because the elk have not been back, Helton said. Issuing a depredation permit is a last resort.
“This is a case-by-case basis and we are not liberal giving these permits out,” Helton said. “We don’t like to issue them, but we believe in individuals and their right to protect themselves and their property.”
One farmer was given a depredation permit after elk trampled his pumpkin patch and a dairy farmer in Maggie Valley was given one after elk damaged fences and spooked his cattle.
These incidences were studied carefully by wildlife biologists before the permits were issued said David Cobb, wildlife management division chief with the Wildlife Resources Commission.
When cows get spooked, they can fall and break their legs and can be injured to the point they need to be put down, said Cobb.
A permit gives the person permission to kill just one elk, and there are strict rules about what can be done with the remains.
“The landowner can use the meat or give it to a charitable organization, but they cannot sell it,” Helton said. “They cannot take the head for a trophy. They have to call and report when they kill it and a biologist or officer collects the head.”
Depredation permits are given for other animals as well, but it does not always end with killing the animal.
“Generally when we issue depredation permits even with deer, very rarely, about 10 percent of the time, does the animal actually get harvested,” he said.
So far, neither of the farmers issued the permits have killed any elk.
Kim Delozier, lands programs manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, recently retired from 32 years of working for the park and eight years managing the elk outside the park. During that time, managing the elk effectively meant taking a number of different approaches.
“We did all of the above — everything from educating the landowners all the way to actually putting the animal down,” he said. “Every situation is different. Every situation warrants a different response.”
Sometimes, they monitored the behavior of the animal, relocated it and used scare devices. Action was considered on a case by case basis.
“You really cannot say how to manage elk until you’re there to evaluate the situation and choose the best response. It’s not cut and dry to what you can do each time,” he said.
In his current position from the headquarters in Tennessee, Delozier said the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s role is to support state and federal organizations to ensure the future of the elk.
Love them or loathe them?
It’s not just farmers that have had negative experiences with the elk.
Sherrie Griffith who lives in the Campbell Creek area of Maggie Valley says the elk have caused so much damage in her neighborhood, she worries what they might do to her children and animals.
“Our well covering has been ripped off several times, our animals have been chased and stomped at, our children’s swing set was damaged when one got his antlers hung in the swing and our neighbor’s hose reel was ripped clean off their house,” Griffith said. “Another neighbor cannot hand dry laundry on her line due to the elk horning them off the line. She also had a dog killed from a stomping elk.”
Despite the problems they’ve caused, Griffith said she enjoys watching them.
It’s not unusual for her to see the elk hanging out in her yard, often with deer accompanying them, or bathing in her neighbor’s pond.
“I really would hate to see them go away. I think they are beautiful, but on the other hand, they can be a nuisance,” she said.
Don Smart, president of the Haywood County Farm Bureau has heard plenty of complaints form area farmers about the elk, and he's had his own problems as well. Roaming elk trampled one of his heifers to death this past spring after tearing down his fence.
"Elk are nomadic animals and it takes a lot of land for elk to roam and feed themselves," Smart said, explaining that's why they are wandering off federal property.
Cobb said he has heard complaints of elk damaging yards, eating grass in pastures and injuring pets.
However, others still consider the animals a pleasure to watch as they wander into residential areas and graze in backyards.
“I have had elk periodically roam through for the seven years that I have lived here,” said Angie Franklin, who lives near Suttontown Road, not far from Cataloochee. “They have never bothered anything on my property. Actually, I prefer the elk over some of my neighbors.”
Coleen Whitley, who also lives off of Suttontown Road, agreed.
“In the four years we’ve been here, they’ve never bothered anything on our property either. We enjoy having them and look forward to cooler weather when they ‘camp out’ on our front yard,” she said.
Despite growing complaints from county residents, Cobb said there are still plenty of people who see the value of the elk.
Elk count is elusive
The exact size of the herd is not known, but park officials estimate there are about 140 to 160 elk roaming on and off the park. The Wildlife Resources Commission biologists are exploring techniques to conduct a population estimate of elk numbers off federal land, which is a difficult task.
That’s because elk that are found in Cataloochee valley behave differently than the elk that are seen wandering around Maggie Valley pastures.
“They act and react very differently than the elk on the park. Those animals are relatively tame and by that I mean it’s not uncommon for there to be close elk/human interactions. Elk off the park are not easy to approach, they’re not easy to count and they’re not easy to see,” Cobb said.
Tracking devices on two elk commonly seen outside the park show that they stay off federal land. But based on observation, biologists believe some elk stay in the park, some stay out of the park and some wander back and forth.
The commission is currently conducting a public opinion survey of landowners in western North Carolina asking questions regarding people’s attitudes and opinions about the elk, Cobb said.
The survey should be completed and the data analyzed by the end of the calendar year and available to the public soon after.
“That will really serve as the basis in answering the questions about what people think and will give us information to help us balance the sociological issues and biological issues regarding the elk,” Cobb said.