If your hiking adventures take you to the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you may be surprised to find elk grazing in the fields.  At this time, about 60 elk currently reside in the Park, which are most likely to be seen in the early mornings or late afternoons as they graze in the open fields.

The ‘return of the elk’ has been hailed as a triumph by tourism and hunting publications, and has been the center of much attention within the Park.  But, despite the beauty of these massive herbivores, I would like to present my own view that suggests the introduction of these large herbivores is not necessarily in the best interest of our natural communties.

Historically, elk have been a part of our eastern deciduous forest ecosystems.  But hunting pressure by our young nation extirpated elk from all of our mid-Atlantic States by the mid-1800’s. 

In the early part of the last century, elk reintroduction efforts were carried out in several eastern States.  For example, elk were introduced into Virginia in 1917.  Between 140 and 150 were taken from Yellowstone National Park and released with the first limited hunting allowed in late December of 1920.  By 1922, an estimated population of 500 elk existed in Virginia.  An additional 56 elk were imported from Yellowstone in 1935. 

At this time, there were no white-tailed deer in these areas, those being extirpated by the late 1800’s.  A total of 85 white-tailed deer were released in the 1950-1956 period that flourished.  However, these deer were heavily infested with a meningeal nematode parasite, or roundworm (brainworm), which proved lethal to the elk.  The last elk was seen in 1974.  (Brainworm is a parasitic nematode (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis) that sometimes kills elk. The nematode is common in the eastern United States and Canada. Its primary host is the white-tailed deer, which it does not normally harm. Elk pick up the parasite from snails - an intermediate brainworm host - which they inadvertently consume while grazing. The worm eventually reaches the brain and spinal column, causing death.)

Elk have also been introduced to north-central Pennsylvania, dating back to 1913.  The stocking program, which totaled 177 elk, ended in 1936.  145 of these elk came from Yellowstone National Park.  A hunting season ensued from 1923 to 1932, when low stock ended the harvest.  By 1972, the population may have been as low as 38 individuals.  As in Virginia, the brainworm parasite was credited with being the primary source of death, causing a 50% population reduction in the previous year.

Enter the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF).  Started by a handful of wealthy Montana hunters in 1984, the mission of this organization was the enhancement of elk populations and habitat throughout the United States.  Included in their mission was the education of their members and the public about habitat conservation, the value of hunting, hunting ethics and wildlife “management”.  Of course, in this sense, management translates as hunting.

The rmef has become a massive lobbying organization of over 150,000 members, with chapters in all 50 States. 

The proposal to bring elk to the Great Smoky Mountains dates back to 1990, when rmef gave the Park Service $30,000 to do a feasibility study for reintroduction.  Along with support from the citizens groups Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Natural History Association, over the next ten years, the rmef, has raised or pledged over $300,000 to make the elk reintroduction a reality. In June of 2000, the East Tennessee chapter of the RMEF held a fundraising banquet in Knoxville that raised an astounding $265,000 for the project. Not to be outdone, the chapter in Asheville, North Carolina, broke every RMEF fundraising record with a banquet that produced $450,000 in pledges.


To further their goals, the Elk Foundation’s Appalachians Wildlife Initiative was established with a goal to protect and restore elk country in the southern Appalachian Mountains. This is being achieved by building partnerships with hunters, mining, timber, agriculture and tourism industries, government agencies, conservation groups, and landowners. Underneath the umbrella of the initiative roam three restored elk herds—in Kentucky’s eastern coal fields, Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Restoration advocates face a swarm of naysayers, people who are comfortable in the balder, simpler world left over from the great wildlife extirpations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Others simply do not want to muster the energy required by controversy. People who are successful in pushing big restoration projects have a unique combination of passion and infinite endurance for the small hurdles thrown up by lesser souls. The elk hunters of the East Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains chapters of the RMEF proved to have just that combination. We put together a banquet in 1989 and had 111 people show up. We raised the first $13,000 that way.


We put together a banquet in 1989 and had 111 people show up. We raised the first $13,000 that way.  Then you turn them loose to go to timber companies, ammunition companies, gun manufacturers, anybody who has a conservation message as part of their mission statement, and ask for funds. You go to the real power players. They badly need the PR. You don't need to get into some discussion about the philosophy of it, you just need the money to do something positive."

One of the biggest obstacles to achieving a goal like elk reintroduction, according to Shiflett, is the rift between the millions of hunters and fishermen and the mainstream environmental community.

When RMEF handed the elk feasibility study funds over, the park's red wolf reintroduction in the Great Smokies was staggering to get off the ground. It was not until that effort failed, due to lack of breeding success and disease, that elk reintroduction entered the realm of possibility.


"The guys up there at Elk Island National Park in Canada have one of the best monitored elk herds in the world. They are clear of the kinds of diseases - chronic wasting disease, TB, brucellosis - that worry livestock growers. Elk Island sent the first animals down for the reintro at Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky, and we drew from that herd because it was acclimated to this kind of country," he explains.

The park’s efforts to reintroduce red wolves were unsuccessful. A number of factors were responsible for this failure, including low reproduction rates and high pup mortality. The wolves were removed from the park and relocated to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.

The experimental release of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in February, 2001 with the importation of 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, the park imported another 27 animals.  Unfortunately, not long after that, chronic wasting disease appeared for the first time east of the Mississippi in Wisconsin, which put the skids on all interstate transport of live wild elk, slowing Tennessee’s efforts. The experimental elk population in Great Smoky Mountains National Park now stands at about 60 animals.

Forest habitats: The dense hardwood forests of Kentucky and Tennessee harbor more than 100 tree species that average 60 to 90 years old. But their value to wildlife is limited by their composition and structure. For much of the last 200 years, logging practices involved “high-grading,” a form of selective harvest that takes most of the high-quality, desirable trees like oak and black cherry and leaves the poorly formed, low-grade trees like red maple, sweetgum and hemlock to grow into a new forest. These trees typically do not produce much food for wildlife. Often, clearcutting or aggressive timber harvesting is needed to remedy this situation.

In addition, a closed tree canopy blocks out all sunlight from the forest floor, leaving little for elk and deer to eat and scant cover for ground-nesting songbirds, ruffed grouse and wild turkeys. When trees die in an old-growth eastern hardwood forest, they create natural gaps in the canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and sprout new vegetation. Rather than waiting 250 years for an old growth forest to form, wildlife managers can mimic an old-growth forest structure and natural disturbances through selective logging and prescribed burning.

Getting the project off the ground took a key figure inside the park to push for restoration, and then stick with it, no matter what. "That figure was Kim DeLozier," says Toman. "He came to us with the proposal, and we saw immediately that it was something we should commit to." DeLozier is the wildlife biologist in charge of the elk reintroduction. In 1978, he came to work at the park as a pig hunter, waging a low-intensity war against the herds of Russian wild boar that were introduced in the early 1900s and have prospered to the detriment of native plants, ground-nesting birds, snakes, and just about any other creature that comes within chomping or rooting range. A hunter to the marrow of his bones, DeLozier pursues deer in Tennessee in the winter, and travels to Utah and Colorado to hunt elk in the fall. He is a native of western North Carolina and is profoundly at home in the woods and fields and farms of his part of the world, which helped when it came time to try and sell another controversial wildlife reintroduction to the locals.

Murrow said that they lost one adult elk to parasites - a suspected infection of meningeal worm - and at least a couple of calves to black bears and coyotes. As to the effect of the elk on native plants, Murrow is currently watching about 50 "exclosures," small fenced areas where the plants cannot be grazed or trampled by elk, to better understand what effects they might be having on the rest of the park.


The last elk in North Carolina was believed to have been killed in the late 1700s.


As of the end of 2004, there are about 4,400 wild elk in eastern Kentucky, and based on population data collected by the department of fish and wildlife resources the herd appears to be growing 15 percent annually. We are fast approaching the overall population goal of 8,000 elk. Hunters could be killing as many as 1,500 elk per year within five years.


Imagine this: It is the year 2030. There are now 40,000 wild elk in the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, and 20,000 Elk Foundation members in each of these states.

The Game Commission's elk management efforts received a substantial shot in the arm in 1990 when the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) contributed $38,000 toward the purchase of State Game Lands 311, a 1,600-acre acquisition at that time, in the Winslow Hill area of Elk County (near Benezette). In 1992 and 1993, the RMEF contributed an additional $92,000 to help fund habitat enhancements and purchase and erect deterrent electric fencing on areas sustaining substantial elk crop damage. Five- strand electric fence was placed around fields and pastures on more than 550 acres cultivated by six farmers, all areas where elk conflicts were being resolved with a gun. In subsequent years, the number of elk being shot for crop damage declined.


What is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)?
CWD is a neurological (brain and nervous system) disease of deer and elk known to occur in limited geographical locations in North America. The disease belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE). These diseases are caused by an abnormal form of a protein called a prion. CWD is a slow accumulation of abnormal prions in the brain and lymphatic tissues of deer and elk that ultimately results in the death of the animal. While CWD is similar to mad cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep, there is no known relationship between CWD and any other TSE of animals or people. In deer and elk there is no practical test of live animals to detect CWD and there is no known treatment or vaccine.


To date, the disease has only been found in deer and elk in North America. CWD is


CWD has been found in four white-tailed deer in West Virginia. The first deer was a road kill in Hampshire County. An additional three deer have been confirmed CWD positive from tests of 121 deer sampled in the same localized area in Hampshire County by West Virginia Division of Natural Resources ( WVDNR) in cooperation with local landowners to determine the distribution and prevalence of the disease.


CWD map: http://www.cwd-info.org/index.php/fuseaction/about.map


Over half a million dollars has been spent by the RMEF in habitat acquisition and research in PA alone.

The RMEF has also given a $900,000 grant for a nine-year restoration project to reintroduce elk to Kentucky

$1.5 million project sponsored by Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Smoky Mountains Natural History Association and the Montana-based Rocky Mountain Elk Association.


Elk are much larger and heavier than white-tailed deer. A mature male elk, called a bull, stands 50-60 inches at the shoulder and weighs 600-1000 pounds. Females, or cows, weigh 500-600 pounds.