Classification: Animalia – Chordata -0Mammalia – Artiodactyla – Ruminantia – Cervidae – Cervinae – Cervus – Canadensis
The elk is the largest mammal in the Smokies. For thousands of years the elk roamed the valleys of the Smokies and though they were hunted by the Native Americans for food, they lived in large herds in the Southern Appalachians. With European Settlers, the herds began to be hunted and the land that the elk called home started to shrink. By the late 1800s, the elk herds were gone and the whitetail deer began to take their place in the mountain ecosystem.
In 2001, the Park Service decided to reintroduce the elk to the area. They picked two areas in the National Park – Cataloochee and the Oconaluftee area . The elk reintroduction were an experimental project that has really taken off and the elk herds in these areas are starting to thrive. Much like the deer herds, the young and the cows roam in herds while the bulls tend toward a solitary life.
The elk is a big animal. Much bigger than the deer that are in Cades Cove, the elk are much more aggressive and therefore much more dangerous. That being said, they are amazing to watch. Elk are grazing animals, they are large grazing animals, so eating take s up a majority of their day. Eating grass and other plants in the National Park. One of the features that is most prominent in the elk are the antlers. Only the bulls have antlers and they grow throughout the year and are shed during the later winter. Each season, as the elk get older they shed their antlers and the next season the antlers grow back bigger and more awe-inspiring.
Where to See Elk in the Smokies:
- Cataloochee – The Cataloochee valley became the perfect place to release some of the first elk in the National Park. Enclosed and protected, with large fields of grass and plenty of forest cover for the elk to play in, Cataloochee gives the elk an amazing backdrop. It is possible to sees dozens of elk roaming through the fields in Cataloochee during the spring and fall.
- Oconaluftte Area – Oconaluftee is the location of the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center on the Cherokee side of the Smokies. Elk were released here in late 2001 and the elk have chosen to hang around. Usually in the afternoons, around dusk, you will see elk come out to graze in the fields around the visitors center.
- The Rut – During the fall (August to early winter) the elk herds start a mating dance called the rut. During the rut you will see bull elk sparring and battling for cows and you will get to hear the elk bugle. The bugling of the elk is one f the items that needs to be on your ‘to do’ list when you come to the Smokies in the fall.