Elk need to be kept in the park

Otherwise, compensate those harmed by their reintroduction
Jan 20, 2013

There is little doubt that the repopulation of elk in the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been a boom to tourism and to Haywood County, which offers the best entrance route to the region.

Before a 2001 effort to reintroduce the elk into an area where they roamed 200 years earlier, very few visitors used the Haywood park entrance. Now that the herd has grown from 25 to 140 or so, elk viewing is a marketable tourist attraction.

That is being threatened, however, by a simple fact about elk that has long been known — the animals have no idea where the protective perimeter of a national park ends and private property begins.

For years now, elk have been spotted outside the park and have been the target of plenty of complaints. From killing a dog in the presence of its owner to decimating landscape shrubs to ravaging winter pasture farmers intended for their livestock, the 700 or so pound animals follow their instincts. There’s also the worry about disease being spread by the unvaccinated animals, some of which have already been found to have a brain-wasting disease.

The problems are real and are ones that must be addressed, not passed back and forth like a hot potato. The park has shirked responsibility, saying it’s a state wildlife commission problem, and state officials have seemed flummoxed by the whole issue.

Meanwhile, elk are being killed outside the park boundary, an act that carries grave consequences for those caught and is certainly not a viable solution.

What should be considered is a partial fence between the park and the nearby populated areas where the elk wander. No doubt an elk-proof fence would be costly, but it is not a cost that needs to be carried by the state or the park, though both should help. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was instrumental in providing funds to reintroduce the species, and holds regular fundraisers in the region. Protecting the elk that now appear to be thriving should be just as high a priority as reintroducing them.

There are other foundations and nonprofits that could likely be persuaded to help the effort, and the project could create needed jobs or internships.

In the alternative, there at least needs to be a fund from which compensation can be provided to those who suffer financial losses when the elk are outside the park.

While the elk that visit populated areas such as Maggie Valley on a regular basis are a thrill to watch, a valuable lesson can be gleaned from another well-known story in Haywood County.

It’s the one about Tom Turkey, Mr. Gobbles or any number of other names locals dubbed a plucky wild turkey that spent months in east Waynesville. The turkey stopped traffic as it strutted in the streets, delighted and sometimes frightened customers at nearby restaurants or offices and was literally the talk of the town for months. Efforts to relocate Tom were unsuccessful and ultimately, his penchant for city life led to his demise.

There are parallels between Tom Turkey and the elk that grow too accustomed to life in town. They need to roam free inside the park.

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