A tagged and collared elk. Credit: Joseph Love
But for all the benefits, building up elk populations is quite complex. Since transplanted elk aren’t native, they’re highly susceptible to disease and previously unknown predators. The brain worm that eastern elk, in their great, healthy numbers, would have contracted from white-tailed deer would not have been a major threat to the species’ overall population and, in fact, would have helped with natural population control. Small numbers of transplanted elk, however, can be totally wiped out by brain worms, which cause loss of motor control and death. Likewise, an elk that has never seen a black bear has no perception of danger to her calf.
For these reasons, when Kentucky took on the task of reintroducing elk within its borders in 1997, it did so with large enough numbers that the elk could thrive despite disease and predatory threat. With an initial transplant of 1,800 elk, just seven years later it was estimated that nearly 4,500 elk thrived in eastern Kentucky and even, unexpectedly, into neighboring Virginia. Kentucky’s abundant elk population became Virginia’s pest problem, and Virginia declared open season on elk for hunters. It’s hard to champion an animal perceived as obtrusive, a nuisance or even dangerous, as elk can be when they become too accustomed to humans. As Roosevelt once said of his beloved wapiti, “In domestication, the bulls are very dangerous to human beings and will kill a man at once if he can get him at a disadvantage, but in a state of nature, they rarely indeed overcome their abject terror of humanity, even when wounded and cornered.”
The elk need such a state of nature and, nestled in the hills between North Carolina and Tennessee, isolated Cataloochee Valley fits that bill. With one long and unpaved road by which to access the valley, Cataloochee is both a natural and historic preserve. Churches, cabins and barns from centuries past still stand and are in use by the park service. Within the walls of the surrounding mountains, located on flat, sunlit plains, harems of cow and calf graze and wander, accompanied always by a handful of bulls. Land Between the Lakes worked with Great Smoky Mountains National Park to send some of their abundant elk population into the secluded valley, and others were transplanted from Canada. The elk roam slowly from field to field, laying in the sun, sparring, bugling and grazing.