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Elk hunting by permit being debated by wildlife commission

elkAs the elk herd in Western North Carolina continues to grow, an elk-hunting season could become a possibility under a proposal being considered by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

Only a limited number of permits — as few as one or two — would likely be awarded at first, and only for male elk.

“We may not issue any permits if we don’t think it is warranted,” explained Mike Carroway, a wildlife biologist for the mountain region. “This proposal is to pave the way for the possibility. It could still be 10 years before we issue a permit. It depends on how the population is doing and whether we feel like it would hurt the population to take a bull.”

A herd of 50 elk reintroduced to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 15 years ago has expanded its home range in recent years, moving out of the park and into surrounding communities. Sightings are routine in Cherokee and Maggie Valley, but lone young males have been known to wander as far as Nantahala, more than 60 miles away.

Carroway said shooting one or two bull elk a year wouldn’t affect the overall herd population.

“If you aren’t taking the females, you aren’t impacting the population at all,” Carroway explained.

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Bull elk vie for harems during mating season, rendering the majority of bulls superfluous when it comes to reproduction. 

Pegging an exact estimate of the elk population is tough, however. 

“In some cases, we can go out and count elk. We know there are little pockets here and there and know what the movements are,” Carroway said. “But we can’t count the elk we don’t see.”

Conservative population estimates are between 140 and 160.

Elk have become a revered and treasured species since their reintroduction, beloved by locals and tourists alike. Any proposal with the word “elk” and “hunting” in it could be met with stiff opposition.

“That is the $64,000 question, is how will this go over,” Carroway said.

The Wildlife Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposal at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, at the Haywood Community College auditorium in Clyde.

There are many unknowns in the proposal. As written, it merely calls for the establishment of a permit-only hunting season for elk during October.

How many permits, how to award them and what they would cost is to be determined.

The permits could either be auctioned or awarded in a lottery. The first year Tennessee issued an elk-hunting permit in 2009, it was auctioned off for $17,000.

Last year, six elk hunting permits were awarded in Tennessee. Five were awarded through a random lottery, which nearly 10,000 hunters entered. The sixth was auctioned off for $9,800.

Carroway said there are pros and cons to both methods. A random lottery gives the general public a fair shot at the elk permit, but auctioning it off can raise money to help with elk management.

“You don’t want to alienate the average hunters who can’t afford $10,000 for a permit. You don’t want it to be just for rich people,” Carroway said. “On the other hand if you auction them off you can raise a lot of money that can then be put into elk management. All those are difficult questions that would have to be answered at some point in the future.”

The growing elk herd has led to conflicts with landowners, from elk taking up residence in yards of homeowners to eating farmers’ crops. Three elk have intentionally been shot and killed by farmers for damaging crops or meddling with their cattle. Half a dozen elk have been hit by cars in Maggie Valley and Cherokee.

But the landowner conflicts are not the motivation behind the idea of a hunting season.

“That is really not part of it,” Carroway said. “The purpose of the permit is not for a landowner to kill an elk that was damaging property. That is not the goal of this.”

However, if a hunting permit is issued, a landowner with an elk problem could feasibly invite whoever won the permit to come on their land.

“If a permit is awarded, they are going to have to find a private landowner who will let them kill an elk on their property, and someone who has incurred damage could be more likely to let someone hunt on their property,” Carroway said.

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