THE MAN WHOSE JOB IT IS to enforce safe distance between humans and elk offers advice: The best way for me and my dog to avoid the 1,000-pound bull elk that reclines peacefully in trailside brush some 100 feet ahead is to detour to the riverbank on my right, hug the river as we creep upstream, then cut through the brush beyond the elk and back to the trail.
“Or,” says Ted Rowe, “we could just hotfoot it right past him.”
“Let’s do that.”
I DID NOT EXPECT ELK. My goal here, near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the southeastern corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is to see how people, businesses, and tourist destinations in the North Carolina mountains cope as we approach six months of life under COVID. I discover a decidedly mixed bag (see companion story). But the bag happens to contain a herd of elk and a nearly 20-year conservation project.
Until Europeans showed up, more than 10 million elk ranged through most of North America. But overhunting east of the Mississippi River killed millions—to the point, around 1900, at which conservationists feared their extinction; the last known elk in North Carolina until recently was shot and killed in the late 18th century. The current elk population is roughly one million, most of them in or near the Rockies. In 2001, the Montana-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation contacted the National Park Service with a proposal: Can we reintroduce elk to the Smokies?
The Park Service released a herd of 25 that year and another 27 in 2002. The population now numbers 200 or so, maybe more, and the elk have thrived under a no-hunting order as they spread throughout the park and into the mountains and forests around it. Elk mainly eat grasses, and the Park Service has reserved a 30-acre meadow next to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center where the animals can graze and people can watch—from a mandatory 50-yard distance. That’s why Ted Rowe and his fellow elk-buffer volunteers, called “Luftee Rovers,” lend their services, which matter especially when fall breeding season begins.
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