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Elk of the Smoky Mountains

All Smoky Mountain Vacations
214 Sharon Dr.
Seymour, TN  37865

The experimental release of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in February 2001 with the importation of 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, the park imported another 27 elk before a state-imposed ban prevented the importation of additional elk in December 2005. Park managers are in negotiations, hoping to introduce up to 30 more elk during a two or three year program extension to better balance the gender ratio. Currently only 25% of elk are female.


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Elk once roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains and elsewhere in the eastern United States until they were eliminated by hunting and loss of habitat. 

In North Carolina, the last elk was believed to have been killed in the late 1700's and in the mid-1800's, the last was killed in Tennessee. By the 1900's, the population of elk in North America dropped to the point of concern of extinction.

Adult males weigh an average of 650 pounds, while cows average 500 pounds. Adults are seven to ten feet in length and stand four and a half to five feet tall at the shoulder. Adult males have antlers that may reach a width of five feet.

Elk of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Elk's diet consists mainly of grasses, wildflowers, herbs, acorns, tree bark, leaves, and buds from shrubs and trees. They have an acute sense of smell and excellent eyesight during their typical life span of 10 - 15 years. 

Elk cows average one calf per year. The calves weigh about 35 pounds at birth and can stand within minutes. Calves nurse for one to seven months and are ready to breed in the second autumn of their lives.

In early spring most elk shed their antlers, which immediately begin to grow again. The antlers, rich in calcium, are quickly eaten by rodents and other animals. Later in the spring, elk shed their winter coats and start growing sleek, copper-colored, one-layer summer coats.

Elk of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In the summer, most of the calves are born and have lost their spots, and the antlers are full grown and have already shed their "velvet."  

When fall arrives, male elk make their legendary bugling calls to challenge other bulls and attract cows. Large bulls use their antlers to intimidate and spar with other males.

Most sparring is ritualistic, however occasional conflicts result in serious injuries to one or more combatants. During September and early October, dominant bulls breed with harems of up to 20 cows.

As winter arrives, elk grow a two-layer coat with long hairs on the top that repel water and a soft, wooly under-lining that helps insulate them. Elk may move from the high country to valleys to feed. Elk may travel beyond the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, however most non-cropland adjacent to the park is designated as an elk buffer zone. Elk that travel past the buffer zone, will be removed by the National Park Service or state wildlife agencies.

All elk were radio collared and monitored during the five-year experimental phase of the project and if the animals abuse the park resources or create significant conflicts with visitors, the program may be stopped. The estimated 1.1 million dollar project partners include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Parks Canada, Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, Friends of the Smokies, the U.S.G.S. Biological Resources Division, and the University of Tennessee.


Early mornings, late evenings and cloudy summer days before or after storms is the best time to view elk. Use binoculars for close-ups and DO NOT attempt to get close! Approaching wildlife causes them to expend crucial energy unnecessarily and can result in real harm. If you approach an animal so closely that it stops eating, you are too close!

Most of the elk are located in the Cataloochee area in the southeastern section of the park. The easiest way to reach Cataloochee is from Interstate highway I-40. Exit I-40 at North Carolina exit #20. After 0.2 mile, turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow the signs 11 miles into Cataloochee valley. Allow at least 45 minutes to reach the valley after exiting I-40.


Elk can grow larger than the park's black bears and can be extremely dangerous. Females with calves will charged people to defend their young and the males may perceive people as challengers and charge. Never touch or move elk calves even if they appear to be orphaned.

The use of lures, elk bugles, and other wildlife calls are illegal inside the park. It is also illegal to remove elk antlers or other elk parts from the park. Never feed elk or other wildlife or bait them in for closer observation. Feeding park wildlife is strictly forbidden by law and almost always leads to the animal's demise. It also increases danger to other park visitors.

All Smoky Mountain Vacations
214 Sharon Dr.
Seymour, TN 37865

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