When most people think of elk (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Cervus canadensis) they probably think of them as residents of the American west. From Colorado to Washington they live in large numbers, especially in protected areas like Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Olympic National Park.
Today it may seem hard to believe but elk once roamed throughout most of the United States and much of Canada. In the east a particularly large subspecies known as the eastern elk (Cervus canadensis canadensis) was hunted to extinction by 1880. Other more widespread subspecies were extirpated from the east by overhunting and only western populations would survive. Before European settlement it is estimated there were about 10 million elk in North America. Today there are only about 1 million.
The dawn of the 21st century saw the National Park Service reintroduce elk populations to a number of eastern states. In 2001 the NPS began importing elk to the quiet and relatively remote Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I first visited this serene landscape along the Tennessee and North Carolina border with my wife in 2013. At that time there were a number of elk roaming around the valley, grazing the grassy fields around sunrise and sunset every day. All seemed to have radio collars so they could be carefully monitored to ensure their survival and success.
I revisited this valley last month and was pleased not only to see many more elk, but many without radio collars. It would seem that they are thriving here, making careful monitoring less important.
The elk were visible as always around dawn and dusk, feeding on grasses throughout the valley. During the day they disappear into the forests for protection from predators. Early one morning I hiked a few miles up the Rough Fork Trail at the end of the valley, and on my way back down I ran into half a dozen elk wandering up into the woods.
Not wanting to stress them or violate federal law about approaching wildlife too closely, I moved off the trail and into the woods a bit. After crouching in the brush for about five minutes these animals finally made their way past me, keeping a close eye on me as they walked by.
At the end of the day I am glad to live in a time when humans no longer seek to extract every natural resource for our own short-sighted needs, and instead work to repair some of the damage our ancestors have done. I hope these elk continue to flourish in the east and once again occupy but a small part of their former range.