Survey says elk still a welcome sight
Overall, elk are still a welcome sight in Western North Carolina, according to a recent survey released by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
The survey was conducted last year in an effort to gather the opinions of landowners in WNC when it comes to the stately animals.
Native to the Appalachian region, elk disappeared from the area in the 1700s due to over-hunting and lack of habitat. The National Park Service began reintroducing the animals, starting with 25, in 2001 and brought in 27 more in 2002.
It's unknown exactly how many elk are in the herd now as they have begun to wander off national park land, but biologists estimate there are about 140 to 160 elk.
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, which is becoming more and more common.
Last year, some local farmers reported issues with the elk destroying crops, spooking cattle and tearing down fences. There have been other reports of property damage and even family dogs killed by elk.
Though rare, two depredation permits were issued to farmers last year, but neither of them were harvested and the permits expired.
Biologists are still working on the survey results, but they have gained some "very clear" information on attitudes toward elk, said David Cobb, wildlife management division chief with the Wildlife Resources Commission.
"Among many, many things that we found, there are a lot of people who are supporters of having elk there. That support varies a lot depending on the knowledge and experience people have with elk," Cobb said.
Most of those who support the presence of the elk population simply enjoy observing the elk in their habitat, even if it's near private property. The support of elk decreased in surveyors who have experienced property damage from elk.
Surveys were sent to a random sampling of 17,218 landowners whose information was taken from 2012 land parcel data and the response rate was about 40.5 percent.
According to the survey summary, response rates were greater from landowners of larger parcels than smaller parcels.
Overall, about 3 percent of landowners said that wild, free roaming elk lived on or within five miles of their largest tracts of land, with Haywood County residents seeing the most.
Across the board, about 1 percent of landowners indicated that elk damaged fences, crops, gardens, trees or other property on the largest tracts of land they owned in western North Carolina.
In Haywood, 3 percent of landowners of up to 2 acres of land, 5 percent of landowners of up to 15 acres of land and 12 percent of landowners of more than 15 acres of land indicated elk damaged their property.
The beginning and end of the survey asked landowners questions about their support or opposition of the elk being on or within five miles of private land. About 72 percent of landowners said they support wild, free roaming elk near their land.
At the end of the survey, 68 percent supported elk within five miles of their land, 73 percent supported elk on private lands and 88 percent supported elk on public lands.
According to the survey, there were mixed reactions from local landowners who own working land. At the beginning of the survey, 46 percent of the group of farmers said they either strongly opposed or opposed elk living on or within five miles of their land. But 32 percent either strongly supported or supported them living on or nearby.
Local residents still seem to have mixed feelings regarding the elk. Many still enjoy seeing the animals, even in their own backyards.
Angie Franklin, who lives about 12 miles from Cataloochee Valley, said she still enjoys seeing the occasional elk in her yard.
"When you live in a remote area as I do, you should not be surprised to a see elk, deer or bear. I have lived here eight years (in Haywood County most of my life) and have never had a issue. I enjoy seeing the wildlife!" she said in a comment on the Mountaineer's Facebook page.
Lynn W. Bryant, another commenter, agreed.
"I have elk that come through my yard. I love seeing them. I don't mind them being here, but then I don't have a garden or anything they could hurt," she said.
Others feel the elk have just become a dangerous nuisance.
"The elk roam on my sister's property all the time and killed her male boxer dog and the dog was in a big chain link lot. I feel they are more trouble since they brought them here," said Rebecca Long Price.
Another Facebook commenter, Brooke Burnette Parrott, said, "Yeah, it's nice to see them occasionally on your property, but if you have them on your property regularly you would probably change your mind."
She said her property has been damaged, her 10-year-old family dog was killed by an elk and her children can't safely play and roam in the woods.
Some believe the presence of the elk have caused an indirect problem when it comes to the amount of visitors to the valley.
"The elk have destroyed a place that was once nice to visit by the way of attracting swarms of way too many visitors. Hence, too much pressure on the area with mostly disrespectful visitors," said Joseph Massie in another post.
Amber Rhinehart Moore, a descendant of the Cataloochee, feels the elk have taken away from the rich history of the area.
"When you hear of Cataloochee or enter the park it is all about the elk and there is so much more to Cataloochee than the elk," she said.
The survey results showed that many landowners wouldn't oppose hunting as an elk management tool. But judging from the survey, few people seemed willing to open their privately owned land for hunting elk, even if they were allowed to charge a fee, Cobb said.
That tells him that if in the future hunting elk were allowed, it would have to happen on public land.
The survey is the second in a three-part effort the state is taking to evaluate the potential for elk in western North Carolina, Cobb said.
For the third step, the state has contracted with a firm in the Research Triangle Park in Raleigh to do an economic analysis to come up with a feasibility study of having an expanded elk population in western North Carolina. That part of the study is expected to be completed by the end of this year and presented in January 2015.