By Dave Russell
Western North Carolina’s elk are doing more than posing for tourist photos in fields around Cherokee. They’re out roaming the local hills.
Joseph Candlish took his grandsons for a walk on Balsam Mountain and had a close encounter with a female elk last weekend.
“We’d stopped at Sugarloaf Creek and the boys were playing in the water and I saw the dog look around and there she was, about six feet from us,” he said. “At one point, the elk and my dog were about two feet apart, nose-to nose. She didn’t pay any attention to us at all.”
Candlish’s dog, Vanna, backed off and the elk followed.
“I could have reached out and touched her,” he said. “She was not afraid of me at all.”
Candlish thinks she was born last year, and he knows a thing or two about elk. He’s one of few people to have flown elk as a helicopter pilot.
“Marlon Perkins did a piece on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on it,” he said. “We went out in Wyoming and located three bulls and 12 cows. We darted them, put a collar on them and watched them for the next year.”
The next year, they tracked them down and darted them again, this time transferring them via helicopter to a catch pen where they watched them for 36 hours, he said.
That first group went to Kentucky, and the second group came to the mountains of Western North Carolina.
“It was very gratifying to see that elk and see the fruits of our labor come full circle,” he said.
Elk and bison once roamed Southern Appalachia; however, by the mid-19th century, over-hunting and loss of habitat had driven elk into extinction. In 2001, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park began an experiment to reintroduce them into the region. Twenty-five elk were imported into the park in 2001, with 27 more the following year. The herd is thriving, primarily living in the Park’s Cataloochee section. Elk grow to between 500 and 700 pounds and can stand 5 feet tall at the shoulder.
The best times to view them are early morning and late evening, and during the fall mating season when the bulls bugle and head-butt to compete for females.