Blue Ridge Country - September/October 2017 - 37
This bull elk is bugling to warn off other bulls; the herd is just out
of sight. Shot with a 300mm photo lens to keep safe distance.
approach only with caution. Don't
test me!" This is the rut.
The road into the park from the
North Carolina side, near Waynesville, begins at Cove Creek off Rt
.276 by I-40-a twisty paved twolane, once the original oxen trail
blazed by ancient settlers. It rises
more and after about 15 minutes
turns to gravel. Some folks freak out
and turn back. Rising upward, crossing the Eastern Continental Divide,
we finally enter the gates of the
Great Smoky Mountain National
Park, now descending toward the
peaceful Cataloochee Valley and a
paved road that extends the length
of the former settlement. Cleared
fields past the campground, hiking
trails and rushing water, the ranger's
house and there they are-the elk.
Elk are larger than the park's
black bears, and can be danger-
Top: Near the Oconaluftee River a bull elk is gathering the herd. Tracking collars
on elk are part of the ongoing environmental assessment program.
Bottom: A calf romps in a meadow near the Oconaluftee River on Cherokee side
of the park.
ous. Female elk with calves have
charged people in defense of their
offspring. Males (bulls) may perceive people as challengers to their
domain and charge. The best way
to avoid these hazards is to keep a
Never touch or move elk calves.
Though they may appear to be orphaned, chances are their mother
is nearby. Cows frequently leave
their newborn calves while they go
off to feed. A calf's natural defense
is to lie down and remain still.
Adult male elk weigh an average of 600-700 pounds. Female elk
-"cows"-average 500 pounds.
Adults are seven to 10 feet long
from nose to tail and stand four to
five feet tall at the shoulder. Adult
males have antlers that may reach
a width of five feet. Elk can live as
long as 15 years.
Elk are vegetarian and eat grasses, forbs and acorns, as well as the
bark, leaves and buds from shrubs
and trees. Elk have an acute sense
of smell and excellent eyesight to
protect them from predators. Coyotes, bobcats and black bears may
kill young, sick or injured elk, but
adult elk are generally safe from
predators in the park. Gray wolves
and mountain lions, both of which
have been extirpated from the
Great Smoky Mountains, are successful predators of elk elsewhere.
Cows usually give birth to only
one calf per year. Newborns weigh
about 35 pounds. They can stand
within minutes of birth and calf
and cow usually rejoin the herd
within a couple of weeks. Calves
nurse for up to seven months. Females are ready to breed in the second autumn of their lives.
September/October 2017 37