The great elk debate

Nice neighbors or hoofed hellions? Locals weigh in
By Stina Sieg | Jan 18, 2013
Photo by: Stina Sieg Elk have become a familiar presence in the area — not just in the Great Smoky Mountains, but the very various communities that make up Haywood County. Above, two bull elk rest in downtown Maggie Valley.

There's no questioning the extreme popularity of elk in the Cataloochee Valley.

Since being reintroduced more than a decade ago, they've become resident rock stars, getting their photos snapped by thousands of eager visitors each year. As they've begun in to venture beyond the invisible border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, however, the elk have wandered into a continuing debate — especially here in Haywood County.

The more they hang out on private lands from White Oak to Maggie Valley, the more the question is raised: Are they a benefit to this place or a nuisance?

Teresa Hartrick, and many who make their home at Maggie Valley Nursing and Rehabilitation, see them as a welcome addition to town. Hartrick, the center's social services director, explained that her residents love to watch the two bull elk that have recently taken up camp in a little field outside the center.

"I think they're cute," she said, "but the residents are really getting a charge out of it."

They've even give one, the bigger of the two, a name: Majestic. Hartrick can't think of a better word to describe the animals.

"They're beautiful. One of them is just gorgeous," she said, adding that many residents like to eat their meals while watching them.

In other areas of the county, the relationship is between people and elk is, to put it lightly, a bit more complicated. Tony McGaha, a local extension agent, is one of many in the middle of the elk debate and has a cache of elk anecdotes that are anything but quaint. Famers have complained about many problems with the animals, he explained, which range from elk knocking over fences to elk eating feed meant for livestock. Farmers who raise hay for feed have also found that if elk urinate on the grass, cows will refuse to eat it.

"Of course I guess I can understand that, too," McGaha said, chuckling a bit.

More seriously, he also wonders about the health threat. While all of the 52 elk that were reintroduced in 2001 and 2002 were throughly checked for disease, now that the population has grown to a roughly estimated 140 to 150, farmers are worried the elk could infect their herds. Brucellosis and leptospirosis, which can cause spontaneous abortions as well as a variety of other ailments, are of particular concern. As the elk population has become bigger (and apparently more curious about Haywood County), so have farmers' worries.

"I mean everybody likes to see deer or elk or whatever," McGaha explained, "but when they become a nuisance to your operation or your farm, then something needs to be done about it."

But what? There's no clear answer yet.

Whose elk?

As it turns out, Great Smoky Mountains National Park probably won't be the one bringing a solution to the table. Joe Jovavich, a wildlife biologist with the park, explained that at this point, the park isn't actually in charge of solving that problem. In recent months the issues concerning elk outside the park were handed to the NC Wildlife Resource Commission, while Jovavich still oversees elk monitoring within the park's boundaries.

Still, he stressed that the park is dedicated to supporting NC Wildlife any way it can.

"It's not like we dumped elk out and then forgot about it and bailed out," Jovavich said.

Instead, he explained, the introduction of elk was a long, thought-out process that was in line with the park's original purpose to help restore and preserve the area's natural state.

"Basically, elk were here 200 years ago, and then European settlers and man wiped them out," he said, adding "if we have the opportunity to bring them back, it's part of our mission to do it."

While he admitted that there have been plenty of complaints about the animals, he stressed that in general the public still likes the program.

He explained that before the program was even started, the park sent out thousands of questionnaires asking locals what they thought of the change. A handful came back with negative comments — and more than 2,400 were positive.

"I think if you look at the larger public, you're going to find overwhelming support for the animals," he said.

As for the threat of disease, he admitted that, yes, viruses could technically be transmitted from elk to livestock but stressed that he believed it would much more likely be the other way around.

"What we have found is that parasite loads in elk were just about zero," he said.

That's just one aspect of the debate, however, and it's doubtful that fact will clear anything up. Justin McVey, district biologist with NC Wildlife, is one of many caught in the middle who doesn't feel close to a solution. McVey — also know as the guy who handles all those complaints regarding rogue elk — explained that he's trying to find a "viable solution to remedy that situation."

Right now, he's still knee-deep in the research aspect of the problem, still trying to create his own count of the animals and exploring all the different aspects of the debate. In the recent past, he's held a few town hall-type meetings on the subject, and hopes to have more in the future.

Brand new to the job, he's continuing to taking the whole situation in, which has involved about 10 land owners thus far. He seems to understand their frustration, as well as the delicacy of the situation.

"Now we have all these elk around, they're costing people money, and we're telling them there's not much they can do about it," he said.

He's "racking" his brain, he added, trying to come up with an answer that will please both the elk lovers and detractors. Maybe one day his agency will sponsor a regulated elk hunting season. Maybe soon he'll be recommending tall, electrified fences to concerned land owners.

"But that is all in the future, and that takes rewriting the regulations and legislative work to get that done," McVey said. "And we're just kind of in the beginning process of getting that done."

In the meantime, elk fans and foes will just have to sit tight, as it seems the big creatures aren't going anywhere anytime soon.