Three years after The Conservation Fund bought the first large tract of land in that project and one year after it was officially designated a state game land, work continues toward that goal.
“Critters have their own mind, so for me to say, ‘There’s not going to be any more problems or conflicts with landowners’ — I’m definitely not going to say that,” said David Stewart, land management biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “But is definitely something we would like to accomplish is making habitat that would encourage elk to hang out on public land more.”
The elk population has been more or less steady at about 150 animals over the last couple years, said wildlife biologist Justin McVey, with the main herds located in Cataloochee, Cherokee, Maggie Valley and Harmon Den — though individual elk have been spotted as far away as Greenville, South Carolina.
With funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Wildlife Commission has completed two major wildlife habitat projects on the game land and is getting ready to start a third.
The first project involved improving the main access road to get rid of erosion issues, clearing it out to allow sunlight to reach the ground, and planting it with elk-friendly forage. The second project took place at the site of a ski resort that had been planned on the property years ago. Slopes 50 to 60 feet wide had been cleared there at one point, wide enough for the Wildlife Commission to get equipment in. The project involved clearing out those slopes once more and planting them with a variety of grasses and leafy plants.
Funding has been secured for a third project, which will run along the same lines as the other two. One of the tracts that’s part of the game lands had some significant logging activity in the past, so the Wildlife Commission wants to convert the old skidder tracks to linear wildlife openings — reshape the roads, clear out enough branches that daylight can hit the ground, and plant the roadbeds with vegetation.
“It’s going to be good habitat for elk, but it’s also good habitat for a whole list of other critters,” Stewart said. “Everything from songbirds to turkeys, grouse, so we’re creating elk habitat but a lot of other stuff is getting their home improved too. It’s a win-win for all the critters that like that kind of habitat.”
Elk are using the property already — just not in large numbers. No herds have located there.
Stewart hopes that could change as these and future habitat projects take effect. Elk love meadow and young forest habitat, but that’s not something that Western North Carolina has in abundance.
“You’ve got oceans and oceans of trees, and trees are a good thing. But you need diversity,” he said.