Wild Elk Viewing
Elk don’t wander the Southeast in great numbers like they once did. But states like Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky have embraced site-specific restoration efforts -- which makes for awe-inspiring wildlife watching where the iconic animals now roam wild again.
Season of the Elk
Late summer into early autumn is an especially exciting and rewarding time to view wild elk.
That’s when rutting male elk let loose with their eerie, high-pitched hollow-sounding whistling, or "bugling.” It is an unforgettable sound, evocative of untamed nature itself, like a wolf’s howl drifting over mountain ridges or a wild turkey’s gobble warbling down a woodland ravine.
Once completely eliminated from their traditional ranges across the eastern United States, North American elk have made something of a comeback in several rugged corners of the Southeast over the last 20 years.
Through collaborations among game-management agencies, cooperating landowners and conservation groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, it’s no longer necessary to book a trip Way Out West to observe free-ranging American elk roaming wild, or to hear their emblematic call of the wild.
Elk don’t wander the Southeast in numbers they once did, but states like Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and especially Kentucky are embracing elk.
Policymakers in those states are viewing limited restoration of North American’s largest member of the deer family as a way to not only to make a new home for an iconic, historically prevalent big game species, but to add tourist-drawing power to remote rural outposts suffering economic decline from reduced natural-resource extraction.
Rebounding from the Brink
The demise of the elk in Appalachia is dated to the mid-to-late 1800s.
“Early records indicated that elk were abundant in the state prior to being settled by European explorers and colonists,” according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “As these settlers moved westward the elk population declined.”
“The last historical record of an elk being sighted in Tennessee was in 1865 when one was reported to be killed in Obion County,” a TWRA information page on elk relates - adding that there wasn’t “one specific reason” for their depletion, although “over-exploitation by man” and “habitat destruction” played significant roles.
Unregulated hunting and grazing competition from settlers’ livestock -- along with loss of elk-sustaining habitats through timber harvesting, mining and urbanization -- are generally blamed for plummeting American elk populations.
Eastern elk were declared extinct by the United States government in 1880.
But as the 20th Century drew to a close, game departments in states where elk had been extirpated began programs aimed at reintroducing the animals in out-of-the-way places where they might thrive.
For starters, they’d learned that elk are a pretty hardy and adaptable species of ungulate -- much like their cousins, the white-tailed deer, which are actually said now to be thriving in numbers that exceeded what Europeans encountered when they first arrived.
Like white-tailed deer, elk have an inborn capacity for adapting to and thriving in a diverse range of habitats.
Owing to the fact that elk are not particularly picky eaters, and will gladly feed on a variety of green and dried grasses, forbs, ferns and woody plants, restoration efforts in the Southeast have met with success -- especially where natural forage is augmented with food patches planted specifically for their benefit.
Although the elk brought in from western states and Canada were not the same subspecies that was native to the eastern United States, they’ve done well here all the same. That’s been especially true in reclaimed coal mine areas where formerly wooded areas have been replanted in native grasses and open-field grazing plots designed not just to enhance habitat for elk, but to boost wildlife populations in general.
Lisa Muller, a professor with the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture who studies and teaches about woodland wildlife habitats, said the resurgence of elk in the Southeast is a remarkable success story - and one that would have seemed unlikely a couple generations ago.
It may sound impractical to transport mature, untamed elk from the harsh-wintered Canadian plains or alpine meadows of Yellowstone to the craggy hills and humid hollers of the Southeast and expect the would survive and proliferate, but they’ve in fact acclimated quite well, said Muller, who is currently in the process of putting together a comprehensive field survey of Tennessee’s herd in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area.
“You find elk in many different types of habitats,” she said. “They have the mechanisms to be successful in a lot of places. They are not just found in one particular kind of habitat. It is really kind of amazing.”
Elk can gain sustenance off a greater assortment of flora than deer - and in turn tend to successfully adapt to the food choices presented to them.
“They can browse like a white-tail, -- and yet they are very effective as grazers,” said Muller. “They are pretty efficient at extracting nutrients from a wider variety of plants -- they are more of a generalist than a white-tailed deer.”
By far the most robust elk populations are found in Kentucky.
The Bluegrass State began aggressively repopulating elk in the Southeast part of the state two decades ago and now boasts an estimated 13,000 elk across a 16-county restoration zone.
Kentucky’s efforts were featured earlier this summer in a New York Times article discussing the tourism-revenue benefits to the state as a result.
“The economic impact is tangible,” according to the Times article. “The state now issues a couple hundred tags for elk hunting each year, and a small market has developed — elk sightseeing tours, elk hunting guides — that adds about $5 million to local economies, according to the state fish and wildlife department.”
Kentucky’s elk management plan notes that despite its large elk population, the state hasn’t yet fully capitalized on elk as an attraction for non-hunters. However, local towns and counties are beginning to take concerted steps toward creating “an elk-centered tourism industry in Kentucky.”
“Various local governments have branded themselves in this regard (Clay County declared itself Gateway to Elk Country, Knott County declared itself Elk Capital of Kentucky), and several local towns have also introduced elk murals, statues, and other elk related artwork into their downtown areas,” according to the plan. “A recent report estimated that 47 million people live within a half-day drive of the Kentucky elk restoration zone, with approximately 163 million people within a day’s drive.”
Elk used to be prevalent throughout much of Virginia and various unsuccessful or small-scope repopulation efforts were initiated over the decades after the last one was killed in 1855.
But Virginia got more serious about developing an elk reintroduction and management plan after witnessing the successes of Kentucky’s efforts -- which in fact resulted in elk crossing the border into Southwest Virginia counties. Between 2012 and 2014, about 75 elk were released in Buchanan County on a 2,600-acre reclaimed coal mine site. Since then, the elk population has grown to 250 and Buchanan, Dickinson and Wise Counties have been declared an elk-management restoration zone.
“Given that most restored elk herds in the East are within approximately 1-2 hours of an urban center, they have the potential to draw wildlife viewers who want to experience a species that has not existed in some areas for over 100 years,” according to the Virginia Commonwealth’s official elk management plan. “The tourism draw in the East increases when elk reside in scenic landscapes, affording viewing experiences similar to those traditionally available only via travel to western states.”
Straddling the Virginia-Kentucky border in Dickenson County is Breaks Interstate Park, which has been offering elk-viewing tours since 2013.
Elk only occasionally pass through the park itself, but head ranger Austin Bradley said agreements between the park and adjacent landowners have been arranged to enable guided tours that virtually always result in successful “hunts.”
For a $35 fee that includes dinner and a knowledgeable guide, visitors are driven to known elk-frequenting sites where they can observe and photograph the majestic animals against backdrops of what one reviewer on Trip Advisor referred to as “jaw-dropping scenery.”
Elk viewing is especially exciting and rewarding for spectators in the late summer and early fall, when the rut is in full swing, said Bradley, a native of Buchanan County who also serves as park manager.
Not only is the air pierced with the singular sounds of bugling and “chuckling,” but visitors are often rewarded with ringside seats to the bulls jostling and jousting over winner-takes-all rights to harem-breeding benefits.
“People really love seeing that,” he said.
Bradley said tours he leads often encounter different groups of bulls tussling and testing one another.
Although a pair of dominant bulls will occasionally throw down in a full-on battle royale, these large animals can obviously do some serious damage to one another with their great dagger-lined antler racks -- and they’re naturally themselves aware of that fact. So more often than actual combat, Bradley said visitors frequently get to observe what amounts to “sparring” sessions among the bulls during rutting season.
“You will see the more dominant bulls chasing off the satellite bulls -- the less dominant ones that sort of revolve around the herds and try to sneak in while the big herd bull is distracted,” he said. “Usually that doesn’t result in a full-fledged fight, but you will see the larger bulls chasing off the smaller bulls.”
“Occasionally -- although it doesn’t happen very often -- we’ve seen full-fledged fights between two dominant bulls,” he added. “Those are not very frequent. But just about every year we do see a bull that has broken antlers or points missing off of antlers because he’s been fighting.”
Judging by reviews on sites like Trip Advisor, you won’t be disappointed if you book an elk-viewing tour at Breaks.
Elk-viewing shelters and meadows are open to the public at Spearhead Trails' Southern Gap location in Grundy -- which will be the site of Buchanan County's annual Elk Fest in October. Viewing tours are also available at Southern Gap -- call 276-244-1111 to make reservations.
Like in Virginia, Tennessee’s state-managed elk zone is situated along the Kentucky border.
The North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area is located about 50 miles north of Knoxville. It offers a prime wildlife viewing-tower perched atop Hatfield Knob, which overlooks 35 acres of open meadow commonly used by elk and other wildlife.
“Originally, western Tennessee was considered for elk reintroduction,” said TWRA elk biologist Brad Miller. “But there was a potential for conflicts with agriculture. But here at North Cumberland, agriculture is minimal, so there is less potential for conflict -- and we have a large base of public land, which makes it a great opportunity for members of the public to come and view the elk.”
About six years ago UT did a study investigating visitation at the elk tower -- and at that time 12,000-15,000 people were going annually.
Miller said all indications are that it is “much more popular now.”
“It is not uncommon to see a dozen or more ATVs lined up in a row going to the management area,” he said. “That translates into more stops and visits to the elk tower.”
Go here to check out the live-feed elk-viewing cam on Hatfield Knob.
The Cataloochee Valley in the southeastern section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to a herd of about 200 elk. Elk were first reintroduced into GSMNP in 2001 and then more elk were brought in in 2002 and they’ve since flourished.
They can be viewed in the park, but have also wandered out to other areas, like nearby Maggie Valley, where the town has embraced their presence as an additional tourism draw.
A publicly accessible elk conservation habitat tract of more than 2,000 acres located adjacent to the national park was established in 2017.
“If you look all around the Southeast and different areas in North Carolina and Tennessee, you’ll see Elk River, Elk Mountain, Elk Valley,” said Kim Delozier, conservation manager with the North Carolina chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “You have names that were associated with elk before, and it is part of the landscape.”
Guided tours in the Cataloochee Valley are closed at this time due to the coronavirus.
Guided elk tours, Breaks Interstate Park (includes dinner): $35
Southern Gap Outdoor Adventure, 1124 Chipping Sparrow Road, Grundy, VA. (Free)
Hatfield Knob -- North Cumberland WMA, (Free) Site Directions: To Royal Blue Unit: Take I-75 to exit 141. Go west on Hwy 63 approx 1 mile. Turn left onto Titus Hollow road. Area approximately ½ mile. To Sundquist Unit at Hatfield Knob: Go north out of Lafollette on Hwy 25W approx seven miles to top of mountain. Turn left at red gate located at top (just before road starts to break over the mountain to back side.) Proceed on gravel road about 3.1 miles to fork in road. Take right fork about 1.4 miles to parking area. When you get to the trailhead it's about half a mile to gravel road: hike to the tower to view the elk.