Elk could be booted from state species of special concern list

Elk could lose their status as a species of special concern under a new rule change proposed by the N.C. Wildlife Commission.

A public hearing on proposed changes to state hunting and fishing rules will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, at Southwestern Community College in Sylva. Organizations that provided financial support for the reintroduction of the elk are prepared to speak out against the proposed rule change.

It is illegal to shoot an elk — both inside the national park boundaries and outside the park. Despite a delisting as a species of special concern, elk would retain their status as a “non-game” animal, making hunting them illegal even if they wander outside protected national park lands.

Tom Massie of Jackson County said the proposal is causing a great deal of confusion, however, and questioned the rationale behind it.

“There have been a lot of people who have spent a lot of time and effort and money to get the elk herd reestablished,” Massie said. “It is a huge economic draw for this region of the state. Why even do it right now?”

Massie said he would like to see the state do a management plan for the species to compliment the national park’s management plan. Elk are frequently wandering out of the park and are beginning to establish satellite herds.

The Wildlife Commission cites the success of the elk restoration project and growth of the herd, which makes the listing no longer necessary.

“This is primarily an administrative change,” said Brad Howard, private lands program coordinator for the Wildlife Commission. “There is no documented evidence we need to have a special concern status on the elk species right now.”

Howard said the move will mirror the national park’s change in status expected later this year, which will shift from “experimental release” to an official “reintroduction.”

“The park has said ‘OK it worked. Let’s see if this population will sustain itself in Western North Carolina,’” Howard said.

 

Hunting, fishing regs undergo annual review

Every year, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission suggests adjustments to their regulations to accommodate hunters and fishermen while protecting natural resources.

Public input can be made at one of nine hearings held statewide, including one at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, or in writing.

Go to www.ncwildlife.org and click on submit comments online. Scroll down to see the list of proposed changes and click to comment. The deadline to comment is Jan. 22.

After collecting and considering all public comments, the Wildlife Commission will meet in March to decide whether or not to adopt the proposals.

 

Hunting

• Elk — Proposal would remove elk from the list of species of Special Concern. The only elk in the state are found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park after being reintroduced to the park. Hunting elk would still be illegal within the park.

• Bobcat and otter — Trappers would no longer have to get tags for bobcat and otters they intend to sell. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is no longer requiring tags for bobcats and otter being sold for commercial purposes, so the state wildlife commission aims to follow suit.

• Armadillo — While armadillo aren’t native to North Carolina, they are beginning to crop up and are being considered a nuisance by the wildlife commission. There is no game law that applies to armadillos, and this proposal aims to set up a year-round open season on armadillos with no bag limits.

 

Fishing proposals

• Franks Creek in Graham County — Proposal would end stocking and ban use of live bait under a new designation as Wild Trout/Natural Bait waters.

• Tellico River in Cherokee County — Proposal would ban use of natural bait and allow artificial lures only under new designation of Wild Trout waters.

• Nantahala River and tributaries in Macon and Clay counties upstream of Nantahala Lake — Proposal would end the exemption that allows fishing during closed season on hatchery supported waters.

• West Fork Pigeon River in Haywood County — Proposal would end stocking on the upper 3.7 miles of currently Hatchery-Supported waters and re-designate as Wild Trout Waters, which would ban live or natural bait, lower the daily limit from 7 to 4, and impose a minimum catch size of 7 inches. The change will better protect the wild brown trout population. The lower 1.7 miles will remain Hatchery-Supported Trout Waters.

• French Broad River — Proposal would decrease the size limit on muskies from 46 inches to 42 inches. Regulation dovetails with statewide rule change to set minimum size limit on muskies at 42 inches and one fish daily catch limit.

The move will conserve spawning stock by protecting 4- to 5-year-old sexually mature fish.

Smokies elk shot down in Cataloochee Valley

A man has been arrested for shooting an elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last Friday.

The elk was shot around 10:30 a.m. in Cataloochee Valley. Another park visitor who happened to be in the area got a description of the man’s vehicle and license plate number, which was used to track down the vehicle’s owner.

A Special Agent with the National Park Service who was assigned to the case drove to the man’s house, five hours away in Granville County, N.C., and confronted him. The suspect reportedly confessed to the offense, according to a press release issued by the Smokies.

The Smokies elk herd is well-loved, even revered. The news has been hard to take for many elk fans who make regular trips to Cataloochee to watch and observe the herd.

Esther Blakely, a volunteer with the Elk Bugle Corp who sees the elk every week, was shocked when she heard the news.

“It is just sad,” Blakely said. “I am still having trouble wrapping my head around someone going into the national park, in this peaceful valley, and shooting this magnificent animal. These are protected animals. This is not a hunting ground. It is a national park.”

Elk once roamed the Smokies but were hunted to extinction in the 1800s. In the eight years since, 52 elk were reintroduced in the park.

This is the first incident of an elk being shot in the park.

“The many visitors and volunteers who come to Cataloochee expressly to watch the elk constitute a very effective surveillance network, which has undoubtedly prevented elk poaching from occurring earlier,” said Steve Kloster, Acting Chief Ranger.

While Cataloochee is certainly a popular destination, it would have been far from crowded at that time of morning on a weekday outside of peak tourist season. The sound of a gunshot reverberating throughout the valley would have sent up a red flag to anyone who was in the area. It is currently illegal to have a loaded and accessible firearm in a national park.

“Having a loaded weapon in the park would have been a violation in its own right,” said Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the park.

The bull elk, which was sporting an impressive antler rack, was left lying in the field at the edge of the woodline where it had been shot. A bull elk can weigh up to 800 pounds. Rangers took the dead elk to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine for a necropsy, which is still pending.

Smokies rangers, the NPS Special Agent and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission cooperated on the investigation. The Park is now working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to develop the case. The suspect’s name will be released once they figure out all the charges against him.

Those convicted of poaching in a national park can face up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000. The weapon and the vehicle used in the crime also can be seized.

The loss of the bull will not negatively affect the long-term viability of the herd, which now numbers 105, but it is an affront what national parks embody.

“We do see this as a very serious theft of the public’s enjoyment of their national park,” Kloster said. “Thousands of visitors come to see these elk each year, and many of them know each animal by sight.”

Miller said elk fans are taking the loss quite personally. The elk that was shot, known as #21, was particularly well-loved.

“He is one of the largest, most magnificent dominant bulls in the valley,” Blakely said.

Only a few bulls are considered dominant. The bulls jockey for their dominant position during the mating season, known as the rut, which occurs in early fall. Dominant bulls emerge from the rut with a harem.

The bull that was shot would have already bred with the females in his harem by now. The bull is no longer crucial to the success of his harem after mating.

Visitation is up in Cataloochee so far this year, with more than 80,000 visitors for the year so far. Last year saw only 75,000. The Bugle Corp has 82 volunteers who take turns educating visitors about the elk and ethical wildlife viewing.

Antlers born anew

By Joe Yarkovich

Spring is upon us and with the days beginning to lengthen, signs of the season can be seen within the elk of Cataloochee as well.

Tis the elk rutting season

The shorter days and cooling temperatures of September and October were an important time of the year for the elk of Cataloochee: the fall rut. The rut is the several-week breeding period when the cows cycle into estrus and the bulls compete for dominance to mate with the cows.

Elk population on the rise

The elk herd in Cataloochee Valley added at least eight babies to its ranks this summer, giving the herd a needed population boost.

Since the elk herd was released in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park five years ago, black bears have become adept at scooping up the infant elk in the early weeks after their birth. The number of elk calves who survived each year were just enough to replace adult elk who died, keeping the herd’s numbers around a constant 50.

Elk negotiations continue

Dick Hamilton, director of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Biologists with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park want to increase the elk herd in Cataloochee by bringing in a new batch of elk from Kentucky.

Park considers more elk

The North Carolina Wildlife Commission is still weighing whether to allow the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to bring more elk into the Cataloochee Valley area of the park.

To elk or not to elk

By the time this column hits the streets (11/2), the results from two public meetings regarding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s experimental elk release will be known. The park is proposing extending the experiment for two years and bringing in additional elk. The first meeting was Tuesday, Oct. 25, in Cherokee and the second was Thursday, Oct. 27, in Fletcher.

Every effort should be taken to help elk project succeed

The experimental elk reintroduction into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park should be given every chance to succeed. If that means an additional release of more elk, then park biologists and state wildlife officials need to work cooperatively to help that happen.

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