“We don’t have any leads in the case,” Sgt. Andrew Helton said. “We need information.”
The elk are believed to have died around May 18. Forensic tests showed a bull elk was killed with a .22 caliber firearm, a cow elk was shot in the neck with birdshot from a shotgun and an undetermined gunshot wound resulted in the death of a pregnant cow elk.
“A farmer called the park after finding a dead elk at the edge of his orchard,” Helton said. “The park called us because it was on private land. While we were walking around, we noticed another elk the farmer didn’t see.”
Then, Helton said, the third dead elk was found. Residents on Mount Sterling Road reported they’d been seeing a bull elk accompanied by two cows in the area.
“Those elk weren’t causing a problem,” Helton said. “They were just running around together.”
It is illegal to shoot an elk for any reason in North Carolina. In addition to facing criminal charges, people who shoot an elk are charged a replacement fee of $2,500.
The slain elk were part of a herd established in the Cataloochee Valley area of the Smokies beginning in 2001, when 25 were brought here from Land Between the Lakes on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, the park imported another 27 animals. Since then, the herd has grown to 140 animals and spread beyond the national park’s borders. Originally found throughout the southern Appalachians, elk had disappeared from North Carolina by the early 1800s.
The deaths of the elk at the hands of poachers particularly shocked members of the Elk Bugle Corps, who volunteer their time to the park educating people on responsible wildlife viewing and elk behavior.
“It feels like someone shot my dog,” said Patty Davis, who has been a member of the Elk Bugle Corps for five years. “All of us who have been involved with the elk reintroduction in anyway whatsoever feels a bit proprietary about the elk.”
Davis, from May until October, is in Cataloochee at least once a week. Spending that kind of time with the elk means you get a sense of the animals as individuals, Davis said.
“It really frustrates us that someone has done this because we’ve done our tiny little piece to help take care of them,” she said. “We wish people would leave them alone and give them a chance to thrive.”
Ann Clayton, a fellow Elk Bugle Corp member who has volunteered for six season, said she had a deep “visceral reaction” when she heard about the shooting deaths of the three elk.
“Our elk are a protected animal, and it is just horrendous to hear that someone would shoot them with buckshot and then let them just die a slow painful death,” Clayton said. “It’s bad enough that someone would poach an elk, but to do it in that manner is horrible.
There’s no good reason to kill an animal like that. I can’t fathom why someone would do it. I really hope they are going to be able to catch these guys and bring them to justice.”
Despite this latest poaching incident, overall, the elk herd is in good shape, said Joe Yarkovich, a wildlife biologist for the park. Yarkovich said there have been just six or seven elk killed by poachers since the reintroduction started a decade ago.
“All in all we’ve had really good public support. People are thrilled to see them still,” he said.
Yarkovich has been spending his workdays lately in the woods at Cataloochee searching for calves, which are born each year in June and early July.
“We have 10 on the ground that I know of,” Yarkovich said. “And we’re likely to have another handful of calves in the next couple of weeks.”
Poachers haven’t been the only problem the elk have faced. During the first few years of the reintroduction, bears killed a number of the baby elk during vulnerable first weeks of life.
So from 2006 to 2008, the park removed bears from Cataloochee before calving season arrived. During that time, calf survival jumped from 30 percent to 85 percent, Yarkovich said. Bears are no longer being relocated, but the elk cows have adapted and grown savvy to the predators, he said. They are moving onto higher ground to have their calves and are even fighting the bears when necessary. Calf survival is at about 80 to 100 percent these days, the biologist said.
“The cows have learned to hide a lot better and to defend against the bears better,” Yarkovich said. “Most of the cows having calves now were born here and grew up here.”
Know anything about the elk shootings?
Call the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission at 800.662.7137, 24 hours a day. Callers may remain anonymous.