Sights on elk season: Bill would implement N.C.’s first elk hunt
North Carolina could see its first elk hunt since wildlife rules existed if a bill introduced to the General Assembly becomes law.
As currently written, the bill, whose sponsors include Rep. Karl Gillespie, R-Franklin, and Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, would direct the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to issue three elk permits for a hunt in October 2024. Two of the permits would be issued through a raffle organized by the Wildlife Commission, with one of those permits reserved for a youth hunter. The third permit would be awarded by an auction to be conducted by a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization under a contract with the Wildlife Commission.
The bill does not name any particular nonprofit wildlife conservation organization but specifies the selected nonprofit must have been involved with efforts to reintroduce elk to North Carolina. This stipulation narrows down the pool significantly. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was the main group involved with reintroduction efforts in the early 2000s and was the organization chosen to benefit from an inaugural elk permit raffle in Virginia last year. RMEF said it is not ready to comment on the North Carolina bill.
“That’s the only one that I’m aware of, the Rocky Mountain group,” Gillespie said. “They’re pretty much considered the premier organization when it comes to that.”
Proceeds from the raffle and auction would be used for elk management and must supplement existing elk management funding rather than replacing it, the bill says. The Wildlife Commission would be able to reimburse itself for the actual cost of administering the raffle, but the remaining proceeds must go to the Wildlife Resources Fund for elk conservation and management. The nonprofit conducting the raffle would be allowed to keep 25% of the proceeds but must turn the rest over to the Wildlife Commission for deposit to the same fund.
Any elk hunt approved in North Carolina would not impact rules against hunting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- A bull elk lets out a bugle. NCWRC photo
When the new millennium dawned, elk had been absent from North Carolina for more than 200 years due to overhunting and habitat loss. But in the 1990s, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park began consulting with other agencies about the possibility of reintroducing them to the park. In February 2001, 25 elk were released in the Cataloochee area. After a successful first year — the herd numbered 28 healthy elk by the following January — the park added a second group of 27 to the herd.
In the two decades since, the elk reintroduction has grown from a group of 52 animals drawing tourists to Cataloochee to a population estimated at more than 200, with multiple herds, including large ones in Cataloochee and Oconaluftee, and individual elk seen roaming as far as Georgia, the Nantahala Gorge and Greenville, South Carolina.
Though the growing elk population has caused conflicts with local landowners, other locals treasure their renewed presence in the mountains. They’re popular with tourists, too — visitation to Cataloochee skyrocketed after the elk were reintroduced. But since the early days of the reintroduction, the dream for many wildlife enthusiasts was to see the herd grow large and healthy enough to sustain a hunt. In 2016, the Wildlife Commission amended its rules to allow for a permit-only hunt during the month of October but also adopted a resolution pledging to delay issuing any elk hunting permits until all wildlife managers involved agree the population is large enough. To date, no such permits have been issued.
“What we want to make sure of is that we don’t do anything to negatively impact the elk herd,” Gillespie said. “So what our intent was with this bill was to get that process started, have an elk hunt and there be an opportunity for the Commission to report back on how that impacted the elk herd, what money was raised, and make a recommendation at that point — is that something we need to continue to do?”
Brad Howard, wildlife management division chief for the Wildlife Commission, said that harvesting three elk will have “minimal if any” biological impact on the population. His understanding is that the permits would be issued for bull elk, which are less important for population growth than female elk.
Gillespie pointed to the example set by Virginia, which has also reintroduced elk to its landscape and held its first-ever permit hunt in October. The state issued six permits to hunt its herd, which is estimated at more than 250 animals. The lottery drew over 30,000 applications, raising more than $600,000, Gillespie said.
“There’s a lot of benefit to a hunt from a financial standpoint, of being able to have more resources to go back into the program to further develop the program,” Gillespie said. “That’s one reason. Another reason is the interest that it raises for wildlife and hunting. Not just with elk, but for the state of North Carolina.”
Gillespie believes the hunt will bring attention to other Wildlife Commission programs in addition to highlighting elk conservation efforts. He’s especially excited about the youth hunting permit that will give one young person a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
The bill is still early in its journey toward becoming law. It was filed Jan. 25 and referred to the Committee on Wildlife Resources, which has not yet scheduled a hearing. Gillespie, who together with Clampitt is vice chairman of the committee, said he expects that to happen soon. If the Committee on Wildlife Resources deems the bill favorable, it goes to the Finance Committee, which could then refer it to the Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House Committee.
“We feel like it’s a good, solid bill, but that there’s always things that you can do to improve your legislation,” Gillespie said. “We want to be as good as it can possibly be.”
- Wildlife Commission staff place a radio collar on an elk. NCWRC photo
Improved population estimate coming
The Wildlife Commission believes the elk herd is “certainly at the 200 mark, if not somewhere over it,” Howard said, but in the coming months the agency will have a more accurate number to share. The current figure is an educated guess based on population counts performed by the Wildlife Commission, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. But a study now underway in partnership with the University of Tennessee will return a much more specific tally.
Called a genetic mark-recapture study, the process allows researchers to estimate the number of individuals in a population by collecting feces and using DNA testing to determine how many different elk left the deposits. Then they return to the field, collect and test more feces, and figure out the proportion of the samples that came from elk already identified in the first round. This allows them to estimate how many individuals are in the entire population. The more rounds of data collection and testing go into the model, the more accurate that estimate becomes.
“Back in the old days, you used to put tags on animals, and then you tried to go catch them again and how many did you catch that had tags or whatnot,” Howard said. “Now we don’t even have to touch the animal. We match it through DNA. So it’s amazing how far technology and science has come.”
Howard said the graduate student conducting the research will finish this spring, with a final report available in May. Those results will help inform the future of any elk hunting program beyond fall 2024.
“Could this be something that happens every couple of years? Is it something that happens every year?” Howard said. “We’re going to have to take this data and this information that we get, stay on top of it and continue to monitor it and see how often we can begin to offer that level of opportunity with the elk herd.”
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I sincerely hope this bill passes. As a hunting enthusiast, this will generate a significant profit for NC wildlife resources, and give a few lucky hunters the opportunity of a lifetime.
This won't be a hunt. These animals are so used to humans encroaching on them that they have no fear of us, sadly.
A hunt, seriously? This will be an out and out slaughter!
They should wait about two more years. That would give the agencies time to publish more count information and do the appropriate PR work.