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Human interaction can be fatal to elk

coverA young male elk in Cataloochee Valley was put down by park rangers last week for repeatedly rushing and taunting visitors. 

A love of junk food led the elk to lose its leeriness of humans. Despite a barrage of rubber bullets and pepper spray by park rangers in recent weeks, the elk couldn’t be convinced to leave people alone.  


“This was not a rash decision. We tried a lot of aversion conditioning,” said Joe Yarkovich, an elk biologist in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Euthanasia is a last resort for us but this one bull was such a safety risk we had to put it down.”

Meanwhile, a bull elk in the Oconaluftee herd had its antlers sawed off by park rangers after it charged people and even smashed into a car during mating season.

While the elks’ forays toward humans were deemed too close for comfort, the elk were actually the victims of people — not the other way around, according to Yarkovich.

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Visitors routinely try to cozy up to the elk, walking up into the fields where they graze to get a better look — or a better photo. And some people actually feed the elk.

An online video captured the young bull elk in Catalooche, which is now dead, sparring, head butting and nuzzling a man from Weaverville. The video went viral last week, pulling in more than 1 million views. 

In the video, the man was sitting on the edge of the road that runs through Catalooche Valley in an apparently defenseless position as the elk stamped around just inches from him. After several minutes, the man finally pushed the elk in the chest with his hands, got up and walked away.

He was one of several photographers lining the field taking pictures of the elk that day back in October. The incident was captured on video by another photographer who had been nearby.

It’s unclear why the many onlookers didn’t intervene by yelling or throwing things to scare the elk off, or why someone in one of the nearby cars didn’t drive up to the elk to get it to move back. Park rangers also aren’t sure exactly what led up to the elk approaching that man and sparring with him in the first place.

Technically, based on the video footage, the man didn’t break the law.

“It is illegal to willfully approach a bear or elk within 50 yards or any distance that disturbs or displaces the animal,” Yarkovich said. “The problem with the wording is it doesn’t say anything about them approaching you.”

A statement from the park suggests the man should have taken steps to move back as the elk approached.

“If an elk approaches you, it is your responsibility to back away slowly to provide space for the animal to pass,” according to the park.

Yarkovich said the photographer’s behavior wasn’t ideal.

But, “The real problem was contributed by the 2,000 people before him,” said Yarkovich. “It was basically a beggar.”

Park wildlife biologists first noticed this particular elk approaching people back in September. Yarkovich suspected it had been fed by people in the past and was now actively looking for handouts.

To confirm his theory, Yarkovich filled an empty potato chip bag with rocks and tossed it on the ground when the elk was watching. When elk sprinted over to it, it was clear this elk had developed a predilection for human junk food.

Park rangers tried to discourage the elk’s bad eating habits. They would stand in the field and crinkled a potato chip bag, let the elk come running up and then douse it with pepper spray. After a few times, the elk wasn’t so keen on the sound of crinkling potato chip bags anymore.

“It would run the other way at the sound,” Yarkovich said. “It was working.”

But the elk’s fear of crinkling potato chip bags stopped there. He wasn’t fazed by people in general.

But neither the elk’s repeated advances toward the photographer nor the video’s rampant rounds on the internet were the tipping point, however.

Twice last week, the elk charged at a local man who regularly walks his dog along the road in Cataloochee Valley. It became clear to park rangers then that their attempts to instill a natural fear of humans simply weren’t working.

The video going viral at about the same time was a case of unfortunate timing. The morning before the video made primetime, Yarkovich had sat down with fellow Smokies Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver and talked about what to do, concluding they should put the elk down.

Now, it looks like the park rangers were pressured to put the elk down because of the negative publicity, but that isn’t the case, Yarkovich said.

The park had considered relocating the elk to another area, or even moving it to other public lands outside the park. But park rangers concluded they couldn’t do so in good faith, since the elk could continue to pose a danger to people wherever it was moved to.

“By initiating physical contact with a visitor, the elk displayed an unacceptable risk to human safety,” according to a statement by the park. “When wildlife exhibits this behavior it often escalates to more aggressive behavior creating a dangerous situation for visitors.”

The park likewise couldn’t give it to a zoo or captive wildlife preserve due to state and federal regulations, which prevent the transport of elk due to fears of chronic wasting disease.


Growing pains

This is the first elk to be euthanized due to nuisance behavior inside the park. But as the elk population grows and tourists flocking to see them show no signs of letting up, more conflicts can be expected.

Yarkovich pointed to Rocky Mountain National Park, where elk are a long-established part of the landscape and a tourist darling. 

“When you have crowds of people around male elk in September and October there is inevitably going to be a defensive maneuver by that animal,” Yarkovich said.

The Smokies have borrowed from the practices used out West by establishing an Elk Bugle Corp. These teams of volunteers patrol elk viewing areas and run interference with visitors.

 “Responsible wildlife viewing is the best thing we can ask for from visitors,” Yarkovich said.

While the national park has never put down an elk for its behaviors inside the park boundaries, twice elk have been intentionally put down for human encounters outside the park. Once, park rangers themselves put down an elk that was causing problems in populated areas outside Cherokee.

And once, a dairy farmer in Haywood County shot an elk that was routinely damaging his property.

As the growing herd begins to migrate outside park boundaries, a few have become known as saboteurs to farmers and property owners. They’ve been blamed for desecrated graveyards, leveled plots of corn, trampled gardens, broken fences — the list goes on. 

This summer, the N.C. Wildlife Commission issued permits to two farmers in Haywood County giving them permission to shoot an elk if it is caught in the act of damaging crops or fields.


Illicit field day with the elk

Meanwhile, an 800-pound elk in Oconaluftee had its antlers sawed off recently after it charged people and even smashed into a car while defending its turf.

A couple of close encounters with the bull elk happened during the federal government shutdown in October, which had essentially closed down the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The main road leading through the park was open to thru-traffic during the shut down, but the rangers and volunteers who are normally posted along the roadside for crowd control at the more popular elk hangouts had been sent home.

With no one there to enforce the rules, some visitors had a field day with the elk — literally. 

It was the worst possible timing. The elk were in the middle of their rut, or mating season. Bulls get highly territorial as they spar with each other for control of female harems. They aren’t very tolerant of people venturing into the fields.

Yarkovich said the visitors violated federal law by approaching the Oconaluftee elk so closely. The bull was within his rights, so to speak to fend off a perceived threat from a visitor.

“Defending a harem is natural behavior for a bull elk,” Yarkovich said.

But as wildlife biologists analyzed the overt and unprovoked advances by the elk in Cataloochee, there was a clear distinction.

“The spike bull in Cataloochee was displaying offensive behavior by actively seeking contact with humans in search of food handouts and had charged visitors along the roadway multiple times,” according to a statement by park officials. “Animals displaying offensive behavior towards humans pose a greater risk to human safety.”

That was the rationale behind the fateful decision to put one bull down, while another bull only had to part with his antlers — which for elk fall off every winter anyway.


How to haze an elk

When elk show signs of being too friendly with people, park rangers try to teach it a lesson.

“The simple way of looking at it is us trying to put the fear of humans back into the animals,” Yarkovich said. 

They try a dose of old-fashion scolding — hollering, screaming and waving their arms at the elk.

They can ramp it up by firing rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and even paint ball pellets at the elk, using clear paint though so the elk’s coat doesn’t get spotted.

This isn’t sniper-style, however. The rangers want it to be perfectly clear that they — i.e. humans — are the ones being such a pain in the derriere.

“So when the animal is in a situation we want it to avoid, like sticking his head in a car window, we get the elk to focus on us by yelling, ‘Hey elk, hey elk, over here,’ and then we hit it,” Yarkovich said. “Every time that elk comes up to a car we chase it away, and eventually that elk learns not to approach vehicles.”

At least, that’s what is supposed to happen.

Sometimes, the gauntlet of rubber bullets isn’t enough to deter the elk from the Cheetos waiting on the other side.

“If we don’t see a return on those aversive efforts at first, we try capture and release,” Yarkovich said.

The rangers shoot it with a tranquilizer dart and put it inside a cattle trailer. When it comes to, it spends some time in the trailer purgatory before being let it go. Theoretically, being captured is supposed to be so distressing that they abhor humans afterwards.

It works brilliantly for bears, who have an impeccable sense of smell and wake up covered in human scent as a stiff reminder of who did this to them.

“For bears it is a really negative experience to be handled by us,” Yarkovich said. 

Elk aren’t quite as turned off.

“Elk are just really tolerant of non-lethal pressure,” Yarkovich said.

Hoofed animals, after all, were the easiest for humans to domesticate. Cows, horses, llamas, camels, bison — they aren’t terribly hard to tame or terribly hard to hunt. 

The Smokies park rangers are among the best when it comes to their deterrent tactics.

“Our aversion conditioning program has national recognition,” Yarkovich said. “We have hosted elk aversive conditioning workshops here that other states and natural resource managers have come to. We even travel around and put it on for other agencies.”

Sadly, it just didn’t work this time.

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