In a little migration that is basically unprecedented, an elk from over the North Carolina mountains spent a week in Townsend, much to the delight of residents and tourists.
Thought to be a transplant from a herd in Cataloochee Valley, the young male elk was spotted in Townsend in late June and as recently as Sunday, residents in the area told The Daily Times.
Townsend Police Chief Kevin Condee said he hasn’t heard of any other sightings in the past few days.
A buzz around the animal’s visit started when a pair of them showed up in Gatlinburg.
“Last year was the first time that we had documented any of the elk coming across the core of the park ... to the Tennessee side,” Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said in a phone interview. “It’s a new thing for us.”
She said 2018 saw three elk visit the area and GSMNP put a radio collar on one of them. The other two they suspect may be the same ones who paid a visit last year, Soehn said. Their collared friend is spending time in Bryson City, North Carolina, for his 2019 vacation.
Of the two elk that visited Tennessee this year, both spent time near the park’s headquarters at Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg. But one made the nearly 40-mile trek to Townsend, where it was received by admirers, minor traffic jams and a multitude of photo ops.
Eventually the males are expected to travel back to North Carolina, but for now, both creatures are following a common pattern for local elk as they seek out places to forge on their own.
But breeding season starts in August and September, experts say, and both should rejoin the herd by then.
Soehn said the Townsend elk most likely was around 3 to 4 years old. She cited GSMNP biologists who say after that age, males become solitary. “Frankly we were a little surprised they were still together,” she said.
Big Meadow Family Campground owner Barbara Johnson said once the solitary elk showed up in the field across from Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center on June 22, people took notice.
“People were coming out and stopping to look at him,” Johnson said. “Police ... had to come and move the cars over because the cars were just stopping in the middle of the road. It was something to see — he is a beautiful animal.”
Johnson said she told campers about the regal visitor from across the mountains and said everyone was excited. “It’s an extra treat for them to be able to see an elk. Now we’re wondering if some of the other herd may come over.”
The creature meandered around town and was photographed in Little River, the intersection of Lizzie Lane and Dunn Hollow Road and in numerous other spots.
But is it safe for humans to be around these animals?
Soehn said they have tried to to let people on this side of the mountains who are less used to seeing elk know that they need to be careful.
“People need to stay at least 50 yards feet back: These are 1,000-pound animals and they’re unpredictable.”
The park is trying its best to make sure the animals remain wild and communicate that the more people give them space, the more they can remain wild.
GSMNP does collar elk like the one spending his time in Bryson City and has been studying their movements in cooperation with North Carolina’s Wildlife Resource Agency. They are trying to understand the growth of the species since it was introduced into the park back in 2001, when 25 elk were brought into the area. Another 27 were brought the next year.
At one point at the beginning of the 20th century, there were concerns elk would become extinct. But that has changed with conservation efforts like the one at Cataloochee Valley.
But it is still hard to get a gauge on just how many elk there are in the area after the 2001 transplant, Soehn said.
“It’s very difficult to even get a true sense of the population because they do disperse so much,” she said, adding the herds now are managed jointly by several land management agencies.
Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency employees said they were aware of the Townsend elk but not keeping a heavy eye on it.
Condee said despite the traffic backups Johnson mentioned, the elk wasn’t a problem in town.