Elk hearing draws a crowd
A minor adjustment to elk depredation rules brought 70 people — about 40 of them college students — out to Haywood Community College last week for a public hearing with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
“It was just a simple, almost clerical fix to a rule adding that reporting requirement to an existing depredation rule,” said Justin McVey, district biologist for the Wildlife Commission. “It seemed most folks were supportive of that. Whenever you have a meeting that involves people talking about elk, you’re going to have proponents and opponents.”
The rule change in question simply proposed that landowners who shoot elk in the act of causing property damage be required to report the kill within 24 hours. Until Aug. 1, elk were listed as a species of special concern, and as such reporting was required. However, when elk were removed from the list of species of special concern, they were not simultaneously added to the list of species for which reporting is required if they’re shot while depredating.
“There was a small window of time when technically there was no reporting requirement for elk in either scenario,” said Brad Howard, private lands program coordinator for the Wildlife Commission. “This is basically just to address what amounted to an oversight.”
Questions about the rule
Still, the public hearing drew some comment related to the proposed rule change itself.
“I have two concerns,” said Haywood County resident Tim Queen, kicking off the evening. “I think every elk if it’s taken should be done by permit, and I want to ask you all why are you waiting 24 hours to report? The elk need to be retrieved and the meat needs to be distributed somewhere so it doesn’t go to waste.”
David Cobb, the Wildlife Commission’s chief of wildlife management, filled Queen in on the state requirements that influence how the Wildlife Commission must manage elk kills. Because state law gives landowners the right to protect their property, he said, the Wildlife Commission has to make some allowance for landowners to shoot elk when they’re caught causing damage — thus why there’s a way to take elk with a permit and a way to take elk without a permit.
The advantage of getting a permit, he explained, is that the meat can be used, and if the landowner doesn’t want to fire the shot himself, he can have someone else listed on the permit.
“There’s a lot of flexibility on what we can do with the permits and much less flexibility on what we can do without a permit,” Cobb said.
The 24-hour timeline, he continued, is mostly because that’s the timeframe referenced in most similar Wildlife Commission regulations.
“Consistency is the only reason we picked 24 hours,” he said. “We could have said 12 or six or 48.”
Mike Stiles, a farmer, told Cobb that the Wildlife Commission should also focus on the disposal requirements. State law does say that animals shot while damaging property must be “buried or otherwise disposed of in a safe and sanitary manner on the property,” but Stiles said that because elk are so large, letting the carcass rot away in the open — as had been observed in some depredation kills this year — doesn’t meet the definition of “safe and sanitary.”
“Most of your depredation permits should be issued to farmers because that’s where depredation is,” he said. “If you should shoot an elk on a farm, you should properly dispose of it.”
A question of habitat
The rest of the 12 people who spoke at the meeting, however, pressed the Wildlife Commission’s representatives with more general questions about the elk population, depredation policies and the future of the herd.
“The question is as this population goes, who’s going to feed them?” asked Jimmy Cowen, a farmer. “Is it going to be up to the private landowner, or is it not fair to ask the (National) Park Service to put in food plots and feed these animals? Why should it be up to the private landowners?”
Cowen expressed an idea often repeated by local farmers who routinely deal with herds of elk that come to their fields for a good meal. Because the Great Smoky Mountains National Park introduced them, they say, shouldn’t the park be responsible for feeding them and lessening pressure on private lands?
Cobb explained that cultivating food plots within park boundaries wouldn’t be consistent with Park Service policy, but that the Wildlife Commission is actively working to establish plots of its own. The organization is in the process of acquiring land for that purpose, and it’s also working with the U.S. Forest Service to convert federal land to elk habitat.
“The concept you have is a very good concept,” Cobb said. “It’s a matter of working out the details here on how to implement it.”
“The (Rocky Mountain) Elk Foundation over the past three years or so has been putting money annually into the Forest Service, into the Wildlife Commission, into the Cherokee tribe and the Park Service too for habitat work,” added Kim Delozier of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Delozier spent his career as a Park Service biologist and led the reintroduction effort.
Multiple people also asked questions about the Wildlife Commission’s projections for the herd’s future growth, asking how many there were now, what the population goal was, and how far the elk might spread.
Cobb answered that the best population estimate available is 150, though that number isn’t certain. The Commission doesn’t have any specific numerical objective for the population — just the more subjective goal to establish a “sustainable, eventually huntable population.”
“It’s moving through Kentucky right now,” said HCC forestry student Philip Blalock, referencing elk reintroductions in the nearby state. “If there’s no predator to stop them, they’re just going to keep going and going. How are we going to keep them at bay if we don’t hunt them?”
Cobb responded that the geography of Western North Carolina is a good bit different than that of eastern Kentucky.
“The goal is for the herd to continue to increase,” he said. “I don’t think it will do that the way it has in Kentucky.”
Cobb acknowledged that some people may already feel like there are too many elk, as evidenced by the comments of a man who’s been dealing with elk damage to trees he’s spent years nurturing.
“I don’t want to kill any, but something’s got to be done to keep them from tearing up my stuff,” the man said.
The meeting drew a good turnout of people with real, experience-based concerns to discuss regarding elk and their impact to private lands. But attendees also spoke to their respect and appreciation for the animals.
“I’m the last native of Cataloochee Valley,” said Harley Caldwell, who was a baby when his family left in 1938 and now resides in the Plott Creek area of Haywood County. “It’s a good place to go and see the elk, but leave them alone.”
Another speaker raised his hand to ask Cobb to enumerate the positive qualities of the elk in order to offset the discussion of elk-related problems.
“Whether any animal — not just an elk or any other animal — is positive or negative depends on your perspective,” Cobb began.
For one thing, he said, the simple fact of restoring a species that once made its home here before being hunted away is a benefit if what you’re after is a whole, functioning ecosystem. And in a less subjective sense, the region as a whole has seen economic benefits from the animal’s return.
“You can look at the visitation rates in the park and how the visitation rates changed after the elk were reintroduced into Cataloochee Valley,” he said. “The visitation has gone through the roof. That’s not just a benefit to the Park Service — that’s a benefit to local economies.”
People who enjoy watching elk, photographing them and — one day, perhaps — hunting them also reap the rewards.
“The elk issue is a very complex issue over there,” Howard said. “We’re still learning how to manage with the landowners and the elk populations and the conservation partners that are in the area.”
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is considering a rule change that would require landowners who shoot elk that are causing property damage to report the kills within 24 hours. Reporting ensures that the Commission has the data it needs to make solid management decisions for the small elk population.
Comments will be accepted through Oct. 14 with a decision made during the Wildlife Commission’s Oct. 18 meeting. If adopted, the new rule would take effect Dec. 1.
The proposed amendment is online at www.ncwildlife.org/Proposed-Regulations.