“This is something that should be hailed and cheered,” said Tim Gestwicki, CEO of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. “The elk made it. The elk are prospering. The elk are expanding. The elk are in search of other habitats, and this (hunting proposal) provides us the opportunity to get more support and more conservation. It’s wonderful.”
“We always hoped it would be a very huntable population in years to come,” said David Whitmire, program chairman for the N.C. Bowhunters Association and owner of Headwaters Outfitters in Rosman. “It would be awesome for your kids and grandkids to be able to hunt elk in the Pisgah National Forest.”
“It’s fair to assume that the conservation community as a whole supports the management of elk in the Southern Appalachians, and we recognize that hunting is an important part of that,” said Ben Prater, southeast program director for Defenders of Wildlife, which is based in Asheville. Prater has been paying attention to the issue but said Defenders doesn’t have a position on the proposal itself.
For a proposal that’s generated a substantial amount of press and discussion leading up to this month’s public hearings, where citizens will get the chance to sound off on the matter, the elk season commands very little ink in the Wildlife Commission’s 22-page document outlining potential changes to wildlife management rules for 2016-17. The five-line proposal lays out a new season lasting from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1, with hunters able to take elk using any legal firearm or bow. Hunting would be by permit only, with a very small but unspecified number of permits available to begin with. A separate section of the document proposes to remove elk from the state list of species of special concern, an action that would be necessary in order to allow a hunting season. Hunting is not allowed inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“This is an evolving process, and whether or not any permits are issued for elk would depend on whether or not we think that the elk population can stand it,” said Mike Carraway, regional supervisor for the Wildlife Commission. “Our first consideration is the vitality and sustainability of the elk population.”
Essentially, said Carraway, approving the proposal would let the Wildlife Commission keep an eye on the data and make permits available if and when it decided populations were healthy enough to withstand a hunt. The number of permits could be decided on a year-by-year basis and will probably stay at zero for a while.
“I really think given the setbacks we’ve had this year, (hunting is) at least another five years out, and that’s real, real, real optimistic,” said Justin McVey, the Commission’s district wildlife biologist who’s been working closely with elk. This year, 15 elk have died from vehicle crashes, disease or firearm after being caught damaging property.
The Wildlife Commission would have leeway to decide how the permits were awarded, once allowed. Possibilities range from a lottery, in which each person pays a small sum for a chance to win an elk tag, to an auction, where each tag sold could bring in thousands of dollars to support the commission’s wildlife management efforts.
Once issued, the number of permits would likely be quite small, probably somewhere between one and six. And they’d be valid for bull elk only, not for females. Because of the way elk biology works, Carraway said, taking a few bull elk would have little to no effect on the overall population.
“Typically the biggest and baddest bulls are the ones that mate with the cows, so if you’re only talking about hunting bulls — and a small number of bulls — then it really doesn’t affect the potential of the population for growth,” Carraway said. “Population growth is essentially determined by the number of cows.”
But how fast, exactly, is the population growing?
Turns out that can be a tricky question to answer. In the western U.S., elk populations are often estimated using aerial counts from helicopter flyovers. Wide-open spaces abound in the Rockies, and it’s not usually hard to find the herd. The thick tree cover of the Appalachians, however, makes for a whole other ball game. Nobody knows exactly how many elk live in the Smokies. It’s likely somewhere between 150 and 200, McVey said, but that’s just a guess. In a feasibility study released last December to examine the potential of establishing huntable elk populations, researchers at RTI International based their calculations on a total population of 186.
Research is ongoing to find a more reliable way to take a headcount — currently, researchers from the park, the Wildlife Commission and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are working to develop a process for identifying individual elk based on the genetic markers they leave behind in their waste. Perfecting that technique would provide the basis not only for more solid population counts but also for analysis of the animals’ movements and social habits.
“It’s going to be down the road before we get a decent estimate, but this result will hopefully be better than anything people have tried to do,” said Caleb Hickman, supervisory fish and wildlife biologist for the EBCI.
The Eastern Band, as a sovereign nation, is responsible for making its own hunting and fishing rules. Tribal Council makes the final decisions, but Hickman said he wouldn’t see himself recommending any kind of elk season until he has solid population numbers in hand. That could be a few years in the future.
“Personally, I would like to do this genetics study first and get a better idea of what the total population is, and also obtain data from the state and the park on birth rates, death rates, causes of death, mortality factors,” Hickman said.
McVey said he’d like to see the state wait on those results as well before the first permit is issued.
“Before we say, ‘let’s issue a bull permit,’ I think those are things we should have,” he said.
Understanding population is about more than just knowing the number of individual animals in a given area, Hickman said. It’s also about knowing the dynamics at play that influence how the head count changes over time. How many elk are being born in a given year, and how many are dying? What are they dying from?
In 2013, a population analysis put the growth rate since the 2001 reintroduction at 1.074 percent, a slow but steady upward trend. But with the elk expanding outside the national park, those metrics are likely changing. Once they leave the park, elk face all kinds of dangers not present inside its borders. Crossing the road could result in a deadly collision with a car whipping by. Indulging in a tasty snack from a lush field can end badly when a farmer who’s not OK with a rogue elk destroying the crops that are his livelihood discovers the raid. State law allows landowners to shoot elk that cause property damage, an instance that’s occurred twice this year.
The diets of park elk and those living outside its borders may also be different, possibly affecting longevity. And population trends may also reflect the process of adaptation to life in the Smokies. For instance, since 2001 elk have become steadily savvier as to how to avoid death by predation from bears.
The questions are many and the data difficult to acquire, but Hickman said, “These are the questions every biologist should be asking.”
And the situation right now is too fragile to jump right in on issuing permits, McVey added.
“I really do want my boys to see elk when they’re older, and I don’t want to do anything that’s going to jeopardize that,” McVey said. “I feel like having a season right now is something that will jeopardize that.”
A bull-only hunt
However, it’s not completely necessary to have hard population numbers to justify a limited, bulls-only season, Carraway said.
In elk culture, the most desirable bulls typically gather a harem of cows around them to mate with. The less dominant bulls wander off solo, not participating in the mating game until such time as they’re able to displace one of the big boys. In any one season, there are a lot of bulls that aren’t fathering any calves.
“There are places where we see a lot of excess bulls, so some of it (hunting permit decisions) would be based on data; some of it would be based on educated guesses about how many bulls are in a particular area,” Carraway said.
The general consensus seems to be that letting hunters try their luck at a few animals each year shouldn’t dampen overall population growth too much.
“With the small number of animals they’re proposing, I personally don’t feel like it will have a significant impact on the overall elk population,” said Kim Delozier, a retired wildlife biologist with the park who was instrumental in the elk restoration project. He’s also a longtime member of the North Carolina Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, currently serving as the chapter’s lands program manager.
McVey, however, doesn’t agree that even a limited take is a great idea for right now. The population is at a fragile stage and needs more time to grow uninhibited, he said.
According to the RTI study, the elk population in Haywood County would still grow over the next 25 to 50 years if four to six elk were hunted each year. Haywood is where the elk were initially reintroduced and where populations are the highest. However, in outlying portions of the elks’ current range — Jackson and Madison counties — elk would be gone within 15 years if any kind of hunting were allowed now, the study said.
McVey pointed out that the study has its flaws. For instance, the numbers are based on the assumption that conflicts with landowners result in two elk deaths per year. He’d like to see factors such as vehicle collisions and disease considered as well.
But the Wildlife Commission’s goal isn’t to institute permissive hunting regulations to the detriment of the elk, Carraway emphasized.
“It is to manage the elk population just like we manage for deer and turkey and other species,” he said. “We’re not going to do anything that we feel like would hurt the population.”
The evolving elk-human relationship
What constitutes “hurting” the population, however, will depend partially upon input from the public.
There are two metrics by which to measure how many elk is too many. There’s the number of animals the environment can sustain before resources become so scarce that the population can’t survive. Then there’s the number of animals that can live in an area before they become a nuisance to the people living around them. For example, maybe the pantry in your kitchen can sustain an army of mice before scarcity kicks in, but your tolerance for co-existence with mice is exceeded after just one encounter. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between biological and cultural carrying capacity.
“Cultural carrying capacity is different for different people,” said Carraway. “For some people, they don’t care how many elk there are — they’re happy having elk on the landscape. For other people, one elk standing in their yard and knocking down their fence is one too many.”
He’s hoping the input gathered at public hearings this month will help the Wildlife Commission gauge where elk fall on that scale. The goal is for elk populations to continue to grow, taking back as much of their native range — which once included the entire state — as possible. But that will be a slow process — due to both biological constraints and the adjustment required from the state’s human inhabitants. Very few people were around in the 1790s, when the last elk disappeared from North Carolina. Learning to live with elk again will be an adjustment for the North Carolinians of today.
“We would hope that over time people would become more accustomed to elk on the landscape and be willing to tolerate elk on the landscape more than they would initially,” Carraway said.
Hunting could be a tool to keep the rate of growth at a pace matching the ability of human communities to adjust.
It could also be a way to draw more attention to the elk’s majesty and to drum up appreciation of the animals’ place in the ecosystem, Gestwicki said.
“I’m not really sure how many people east of Charlotte know that we have an elk population in the state, this iconic species,” said Gestwicki, whose office is in Charlotte. “I think adding a hunting season — again, limited — will bring even further attention and support to the elk.”
The elk are already a popular attraction for wildlife lovers. In the first three years after their reintroduction, visitation to the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the elk were initially released, grew by 327 percent. That number has since fallen, but at the end of 2014 visitation there was still 155 percent greater than in the pre-elk years. A possible reason for lower numbers at Cataloochee could be the new herd that’s established itself in the field beside the more easily accessible Oconaluftee Visitor Center, which has seen rising visitation over the last few years. It’s not unusual for park visitors to show up there as twilight falls, hoping to catch a glimpse of elk making their way into the field for an evening meal.
Adding a season would only encourage elk-related tourism, especially down the road as elk populations continue to grow, said Whitmire. For the present, he sees wildlife viewing staying strong as the far-and-away most popular type of elk-related visitation, but people will travel to hunt. Whitmire himself has trekked all the way to Colorado to bag an elk.
“Maybe in 30 years or something you might have 15 or 20 tags in an area over here. It might be a big boost (to tourism), but that would be several years down the road,” he said.
Really, the proposal on the table now is just the beginning of what looks to be a strong future for the Smokies elk. It’s been less than two decades since the animals were brought back from complete extirpation, so the fact that we can even talk about instituting an elk season — even a limited one a few years distant — is an achievement.
But the proof-bearing pudding will really come years from now, as the elk populations — hopefully — continue to strengthen and become capable of drawing ever-larger numbers of wildlife viewers and hunters alike.
“Our organization is applauding this and realizing, hey, this is a success,” Gestwicki said. “Let’s build upon this success and work on more habitat conservation so the elk population can expand even further.”
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission will hold a public hearing on its proposed changes to state hunting, fishing and management rules at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, in the auditorium of Haywood Community College in Clyde. The proposed changes include:
- Permitting a one-month elk season for a limited number of permit-holders and taking the animals off the state list of species of special concern.
- Establishing a swimming area at the Pines Recreation Area Swim Beach on Lake Glenville where boats would not be allowed. Duke Energy Carolinas, which established the recreation area, requested the change.
- Changing the definition of “bear cub” from bears weighing less than 50 pounds to those weighing less than 75 pounds. The change would make the commission’s rules consistent with a 2015 state law.
- Allowing the sale of untanned hides from deer that have been legally harvested or killed by a vehicle. People selling tanned hides must hold a trophy sale permit.
- Allowing wildlife damage control agents to renew their status by completing continuing education courses, giving an alternative option to the current requirement to attend a commission training course.
Proposed changes are online at https://ncpaws.org/PAWS/WRC/PublicComments/PublicEntry/PublicComments.aspx.
Elk management area poised for completion in Maggie Valley
A years-long effort to found a homestead for elk populations expanding outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has recently seen some major progress, with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission hoping to have a 2.7-square-mile management area in its hands by the end of the year.
“The reason that elk have come out of the park is there’s not enough habitat for them in the park, so having some additional public lands will enable the Wildlife Commission to manage these properties for elk and other wildlife species,” said Bill Holman, North Carolina director for The Conservation Fund, the group spearheading the project.
The first chunk of the property, a 561-acre tract enveloping Sheepback Mountain and abutting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Maggie Valley, could be state property before winter is out. With a $100,000 grant from the Duke Energy Water Resources Fund to the Maggie Valley Sanitary District putting the final piece in the funding puzzle to purchase the property, all that remains is for the N.C. Council of State to approve conveying the property to the Wildlife Commission. That could happen as early as the council’s February meeting.
The Conservation Fund is still working on purchasing the larger piece of the acreage, tracts totaling 1,181 acres and owned by three different landowners.
The Clean Water Management Trust Fund awarded $1.2 million to acquire Robert Williams’ 783-acre tract, with $250,000 provided from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and $500,000 in private funding, though more money is needed to complete the purchase. The Trust Fund has also approved a provisional grant of $1.2 million for the 215-acre Sammy Carver and 183-acre Thornton Hawkins tracts, with $20,000 provided from the Pigeon River Fund. Holman hopes to have that land in the Wildlife Commission’s hands by the fall.
The boundaries of the future management area may not stop there.
“There appear to be a number of other conservation-minded property owners in the area, so we could potentially add to that,” Holman said.
The end goal would be to provide a large area of land that would be managed for the open spaces and young forest habitats that are rare in Western North Carolina and vital to the success of many species, including elk.
“It’s very difficult to manage private land for elk unless you have a willing landowner,” said Carraway. “If we have public land that we can manage for elk, we can do a much better job of habitat management.”
Elk would not be the only beneficiaries.
“When we make that good habitat, elk are going to use it, turkey are going to use it, golden-winged warblers are going to use it,” said Justin McVey, district biologist for the Wildlife Commission. “It’s a whole suite of species.”
Humans could be one of the species reaping side benefits from elk management. The welfare of wildlife would be the Wildlife Commission’s primary goal for the property, but it could also provide recreational opportunities such as hiking and mountain biking trails.
Humans will benefit in another way, too: water quality protection. The Sheepback Mountain area drains to Jonathan Creek, which supplies much of Maggie Valley’s water.
“The Sheepback Mountain Project represents a critical step towards preserving one of the last complete watersheds that has not been impacted in the Maggie Valley area,” said Neil Carpenter, sanitary district manager.