Visitors flock to Cataloochee for elk mating season
By Iva Butler | (email@example.com)
CATALOOCHEE. N.C. — Elk are nearing the end of their mating season and bulls can be heard “bugling” for females over the remote Cataloochee Valley in the North Carolina section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The rut season runs from around mid-September to mid-October, and this is a good time to see the majestic animals.
The best times to view the elk are early in the morning an late in the evening, with elk generally starting to come out of the woods around 3 p.m. Many visitors bring lawn chairs and have picnics while awaiting or watching the elk.
Elk are magnificent animals, with males weighting 600 to 700 pounds and females averaging 500 pounds. They are 7 to 10 feet long and 4½ to 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Adult bulls have antlers that reach a width of up to 5 feet.
Elk cows normally have one calf, which weighs around 35 pounds, in the spring.
At first they had their calves in the fields, which left the newborns vulnerable to predators like black bears and coyotes. They learned to go off to remote areas in the mountains to have their calves, areas less likely to have predators.
Females are ready to breed in the second autumn of their lives.
Bull elk can be seen in the fields bugling, a sound intended to warn off other bulls and attract cows, sounds that can be heard for a mile or more away. The bugling can also be heard back in the forests.
Below average crop
After several years of high reproduction and survival, the cows produced a below average crop. Only 14 calves were born this year in the Park. The lower birth level is attributed to several females moving into old age and multiple younger animals not producing calves,
Members of a volunteer group called the Bugle Corps are available to provide visitors information on the elk. Visitors are warned to stay at least 50 feet away from the animals.
Cataloochee is nestled in rugged mountains that have 6,000-foot peaks.
Along the dead-end roads in the valley are a historic school, churches, barns and homes. There are also several hiking trails in the area and a camping area.
Elk are native to the East, but have been absent from the southern Appalachians for almost 200 years. They were eliminated by over-hunting and loss of habitat. The last elk were killed in North Carolina in the late 1700s and in Tennessee in the mid-1800s.
140 in park
The reintroduction funding came from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which raised just under a million dollars, and additional funds came from Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association.
Elk were reintroduced in February 2001 into Cataloochee, which is similar to Cades Cove with open fields, streams and historic structures.
Since the first 25 elk were introduced from Elk Island via a refuge at Land Between the Lakes, and a later group of 27 animals imported directly from Elk Island in Canada in 2002, the number has grown to about 140 elk inside and outside the Park.
Eight or nine years ago the elk were spotted in Oconaluftee and the Oak Cove tribal lands of the Cherokee. The elk followed the watershed to the Native American lands.
They can often be seen in the fields beside Oconaluftee Visitors Center on U.S. 441 at the Cherokee entrance to the park.
The reintroduction of the elk draws people from many states each year. Cataloochee recorded 65,432 visitors in 2000, the year before the elk were imported, compared to 146,559 in 2011.