One of the original elk brought to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 10 years ago as part of a reintroduction of the magnificent species was shot and killed by a poacher in February.
The killing took place in Haywood County just outside of the park, in the 12 Mile Strip along the Pigeon River Gorge near Waterville heading toward the state line. Elk are listed as a species of special concern by the state, so it is illegal to shoot them even if they have wandered outside the national park.
A reward of $5,000 is on the table for information leading to the poacher’s arrest and conviction. A group of elk fans calling themselves Friends of the Elk have put up the reward money.
“The hope is the announcement of the reward will loosen some tongues,” said Bill Burkett of Weaverville, who has contributed to the reward kitty. The shooting has been under investigation by the N.C. Wildlife Commission but was kept quiet until now.
Burkett said they decided to pitch in and offer a reward “when it seemed like the law enforcement investigation wasn’t going anywhere.”
The area where the elk was shot is very remote. It’s possible no one saw anything, but Burkett suspected whoever shot it may have told his friends. Poachers took the antlers, hide, hooves and meat.
Based on the carcass left behind, poachers had butchered the elk, which is no small job.
“To get the quarters and the back strap and any salvageable meat small enough to carry off, I would guess three to four hours. This is a big critter so it took these people a while to do this,” Burkett said.
Hooves are sometimes mounted on the wall pointing upwards like a hook to make a gun rack or coat rack. As for the antlers, elk drop theirs every winter. The spot where the antlers grow had been cut away by the poachers anyway.
Poachers wisely left the radio collar behind — the collar can be tracked by park rangers. In fact, the motionless collar may be what altered rangers there was a problem and led them to the spot.
“When the collar stops moving something is wrong,” Burkett said.
It is unlikely the poacher was out hunting and accidentally shot the elk, or that it was even an impulse shooting. Dear and bear season are over by February. While grouse and rabbits are in season, those are hunted with shotguns, and it would take a high-power rifle to bring down an elk, Burkett surmised. Burkett is a member of the Great Smoky Mountains chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which provided financial support for the elk reintroduction in the park.
The park is still concerned about the loss of the elk, even though it is outside the park boundary.
“The illegal poaching outside of the park borders interferes with our ability to manage and protect resources inside the park,” said Nancy Gray, park spokeswoman.
The park is phasing out the use of radio collars and ear tags as the 130-member herd proves it can survive (unless poached illegally) without being actively managed by park rangers, Gray said.
This was the third elk killed since the reintroduction took place, and marks the second elk slain outside of the national park. Last year, Bruce Wayne Cromer, of Stovall, was charged with shooting an elk on Nov. 13, 2009, in Cataloochee. He was fined $15,000 in restitution to the park and his truck and firearm were confiscated. He was also sentenced to six months in jail.
The poacher of the first elk killed eluded prosecution.
Information about the poaching can be reported at 800.662.7137. Information can also be reported to local N.C. wildlife officers, Daniel Cable at 828.450.7894 or Jeff Jackson at 828.450.7895.