“Elk don’t know how many feet a horse has.”
That’s the advice Bear Claw Chris Lapp gave Jeremiah Johnson as the pair hid behind their horses while stalking elk in the eponymous Robert Redford film. Well, according to Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, elk don’t know the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park either.
“I truly believe we need an elk management plan because the population will continue to grow and the elk don’t recognize the boundaries of Smoky Mountain National Park,” said Massie, representing the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.
While elk are protected inside the park’s boundary, they could lose their status as a species of special concern when wandering onto private property under a proposed change by the N.C. Wildlife Commission.
Hunting elk would still be illegal but private landowners could shoot elk causing property damage. Under the current rules, landowners are supposed to get a permit before shooting problem elk.
Massie was one of a host of people who turned out at a public hearing in Sylva last week on the rule change. With a herd population of only 110, the loss of even a few elk at the hands of careless private landowners could jeopardize their long-term viability, according to opponents of the rule change.
Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the Smokies, said that over a third of the herd now lives outside the park’s boundaries in Haywood County and the Cherokee Reservation.
David Cobb, chief of the wildlife management division for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said he had no way of knowing what the death of even a few elk would have on the herd.
“I can’t say what the death of one elk would do because I haven’t done the population study,” Cobb said.
Massie called on the N.C. Wildlife Commission to establish a management plan for the elk, something the state currently lacks.
Brad Howard, a wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said elk will essentially still be protected even though they won’t have special concern status.
“People seem to be concerned that people will start shooting elk at leisure,” Howard said. “That is not the case. Our enforcement guys are going to want to know why you shot this elk and show us the property damage that warrants why you shot this elk. There are very specific parameters and you have to justify the animal was in fact doing damage.”
Dan McCoy, former tribal chairperson of the ECBI, traveled to the meeting with his son Connor to speak up for the elk. McCoy told commissioners he’d purchased the boy a lifetime membership to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in the hopes that one day he would be able to hunt the animals.
“Our people are proud of these elk. They’re proud they’re there, but they still need our protection,” he said.
People who have put their time and money into establishing a healthy elk herd in Western North Carolina are demanding that the animals retain their status as a species of special concern.
“Listen to the hearts and minds of the people on this because that’s really what this is all about,” Ramona Bryson said.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Friends of the Smokies led a massive fundraising effort that garnered over $1.2 million to support the reintroduction project. A satellite herd has taken up residence on land owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, contributing to the sentiment that the N.C. Wildlife Commission is not the only stakeholder in the debate over the animals’ future.
Ray Bryson, another member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, was one of the volunteers who drove 59 hours round trip to Alberta, Canada, to deliver the elk to the park when the herd was first established. Bryson urged the Wildlife Commission to work with the national park and the tribe to establish a management plan that would expand the elks’ range into the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.
Cobb said his staff met with members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in person before the hearing and the discussion concerning their protected status is ongoing.
“This is nowhere close to a done deal,” said Cobb.