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JERE BRITTAIN: Film documents Brysons' role in restoring elk to Chattaloochee

Ramona and Ray Bryson helped restore elk to the Cataloochee Valley. Ramona and Ray Bryson helped restore elk to the Cataloochee Valley.

Recently I received a phone call from my friend, neighbor and cousin, Lynn Bryson, inviting me to be an extra in a documentary her son Rick was creating for a competition sponsored by the North Carolina Department of Tourism.

Rick’s entry would feature the role of the Brysons and others of Mills River in restoring elk in Western North Carolina. Part of the project involved reenactment of building the holding pens in Chattaloochee Valley in the Smokies. This segment was filmed at Lynn’s beautiful woodlot in South Mills River.

The filming session concluded with a delicious chili lunch served by Lynn and Ramona Bryson and provided an opportunity to meet some key members of the Smoky Mountain Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). Joe Treadway, past chairman of RMEF led efforts to organize the local chapter. He said that the Smoky Mountain Chapter has raised more than two million dollars over the past twenty years, mainly through annual banquets and membership subscriptions.

Ray and Ramona Bryson of South Mills River are elk hunters who have played a leadership role in the successful restoration of elk at Chattaloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. They credit Kim Delozier with originating and implementing the bold plan to restore elk in the Smokies twenty years ago. Delozier, renowned for his knowledge of black bears, was head biologist for the Smoky Park during the re-introduction process. He led the complex negotiations with state and federal agencies to obtain permits for transporting the first 25 elk from Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky and Tennessee in 2001 and the second group of 27from Canada in 2002.

Before their release from the holding pens, each elk was fitted with a tracking collar for monitoring by students from the University of Tennessee. During the first calving season, only three out of eight calves survived due to depredation by bears. The second season, cow number 18 wandered seven miles away, as if to avoid the bears, and showed up a few days later with a healthy calf. At one critical point, biologist Delozier trapped and relocated several bears, enhancing the survival rate of calves. The current population is estimated to have grown to more than 400 head, spreading as far as Cherokee.

About fifteen years ago, grandson John and I were invited to join the Bryson and Sorrells families on a camping trip to Chattaloochee Valley. I can still vividly recall the thrilling sound of the bull elk mating bugle, something I never expected to hear in Western North Carolina. Thanks to the Brysons of Mills River and others who made this happen through hard work and stubborn belief that it could be done.

Journeying On …