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NC Elk Population Is Rebounding - But Smokies Visitors Should Admire Them From Afar

An elk grazes in field Sept. 26, 2019, off U.S. 441 near the North Carolina-Tennessee border in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This time of year many people head to the North Carolina mountains to look at the changing leaves. But there’s another attraction: elk. Officials at Great Smoky Mountains National park are urging visitors to keep their distance while admiring the massive animals.

While native to the area, the animal disappeared from North Carolina in the late 1700s. About 50 were reintroduced into the Smokies in the early 2000s as part of a recovery program. There’s now estimated to be around 150 in the southeastern part of the park in the Cataloochee Valley and around Cherokee.  

The slow but steady growth is good, says Joe Yarkovich, a wildlife biologist with the park.

“With that slower growth, the whole ecosystem is able to adjust to having this new animal out there," Yarkovich said. "It also gives us time to set up better studies to see what kind of impact if any they’re having on the environment here.”

Elk are herbivores, and Yarkovich says their eating habits promote greater plant diversity. They also serve as a food source for coyotes and bears. But the biggest threat to them are cars.

Yarkovich says there have been four elk killed in collisions this year. But they can be dangerous to humans, too — especially during the fall when they mate.  

“We get a big influx of visitors this time of year that come to see the elk, and most of our time is spent just managing visitors, trying to keep a safe distance between them and the elk because these bulls can be pretty defensive,” Yarkovich said. 

Bull elk typically weigh 600-700 pounds and stand about 5 feet tall, and female elk usually about 500 pounds. Some bulls have 5-foot wide antlers.

Yarkovich says if people who plan on going to see elk should bring binoculars or a telephoto lens. In the Smokies, it’s illegal to get within 50 yards of an elk.


Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.