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Residents spotting an elk that left Cataloochee herd

An elk helps himself to a plant in the front yard of a home in Foxwood off Mountain Road. An elk helps himself to a plant in the front yard of a home in Foxwood off Mountain Road.

LAUREL PARK — Ibby and Bradley Jones are used to wildlife, living on Ransier Drive near the woods. But the big animal they saw this week was a startling sight.
“I thought I was dreaming,” Bradley said. “Yesterday morning about 7:30, we were getting ready for work and it was outside by the driveway eating grass.”
Jones made smart phone pictures and a video.
“We just stayed inside,” he said. “We have two black labs and luckily they both stayed inside. He kind of noticed we were taping and looked up and he just kind of walked away into the woods. It was wild.”
A technician working a job at Foxwood off Mountain Road spotted an elk — maybe the same elk — on Tuesday morning, said Keith White, a manager at Summey.
“They went by and they said ‘Holy cow’ and took the picture,” he said.
The wildlife experts are on it. In fact, they’ve been tracking the bull step by step ever since he left the Great Smoky Mountains herd about three weeks ago.
“We don’t know why he came here but we know where he came from, his route and how he got there,” said Mike Carraway, a wildlife biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “This is a young bull that’s probably about three years old. He was hanging around with a small herd of elk in the Maggie Valley area. He had been there a couple of years and all of a sudden he decided to cross the mountain from Maggie Valley to Waynesville, then went from Waynesville up around the Waynesville watershed toward Lake Logan, then went to where he’s been hanging out recently in Etowah.”
Carraway had heard about the Laurel Park sighting. He says it’s the same bull.
“It’s probably not as many as you would think,” he said of the mileage the bull had been wandering.
Biologists don’t know for sure why a young bull might leave a herd but it’s not all that rare.
“That is a strong possibility that maybe he was being bullied by other bulls,” he said. “We’ve had elk do this before, particularly young bulls.
guess it’s a natural way for wildlife population to spread, is for these young animals to go out. We’ve seen this before. This time we had a collar on one and we’ve been tracking him the whole way.”
More than 10 million elk once roamed North America but the last North Carolina elk was killed in the late 1700s, according to a website on the elk herd that was released in the Great Smokies in 2000 and 2001. The 52 North American elk released in the Cataloochee Valley have multiplied ever since.
“He’s just wandering,” Carraway said of our new elk. “He doesn’t seem to be particularly afraid of people.” And that’s not necessarily good. “Even though he might seem tame, they’re wild animals. They should not approach him and not feed him. He’s tame enough as it is. Don’t try to feed him. Let him go where he wants to go.”
In the long view, Carraway said, it’s not surprising that a few elk have spread. “We kind of expect this behavior,” he said. “Unless there's some kind of threat, I think people should expect to see more wild elk around these parts. We have female elk as well that are outside from the Great Smokies and it’s usually small herds with a mixture of females and young bulls and calves. When we start seeing females more widely dispersed that’s an indication that the population is spreading. But this one in particular is just a bull that’s wandering.”
At three years old, the bull is not full grown. He might head back where he came from in pursuit of a mate in another year or two.
“I would suspect that as he becomes an older and a more mature bull and gives serious thought to looking for cows, he might go back,” Carraway said. “If he gets near cows right now he’s going to have to contend with a larger bull.”