Smoky Mountain Elk Rut is on. The call of the wild echoes in the Smokies as Bull Elks seek mates.
Early autumn sends the powerful mating call of bull elks across many areas of the Smokies during the fall breeding season. This loud bugling sends a challenge to other males in the area, and attempts to attract cows for the bull’s harem. Known as the rut, this annual fascinating ritual, which occurs during mid September through October, is played out each day during the elk mating season.
Dominant bulls are the largest animal in the Smokies. Weighing in at between 600 and 700 pounds and measuring up to 10 feet in length they are much larger than the Smokies iconic black bears. They are also aggressive during this season, commanding the fields, defending their territory, charging competitors in an intimidation attempt and fending them off with their huge antlers. It is a dramatic confrontation, and a successful bull can gather and breed with as many as 20 cows.
One of the best places to view this amazing experience is the large meadow where elk congregate in Cataloochie. Elk prefer feeding in cooler weather and usually graze in early morning or late in the evening so the best time to see them is about two hours before sunset.
Although the meadow is an open spot and easily accessible, visitors to Cataloochee, and anywhere else in the Smokies, are warned not to approach these large animals. Elk are massive and can be dangerous. In the spring, cows will defend their calf and in the fall bulls are looking to mate and will fight anything, including you, that they perceive as a challenge to their harem. Close encounters could end in injury, or possibly death, if the elk thinks you pose a threat to their territory. Federal regulations require that you remain at least 150 feet away at a distance that does not disturb these huge animals. Failure to do so will result in fines or arrest. Even if the elk are not present it is still illegal to walk in the meadow.
Elk, once abundant in the Smokies, were over hunted and eventually eliminated, during the late 18th and early19th centuries. But now, once again, the magnificent creatures are making a comeback thanks to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Highlands Cashiers Land Trust which reintroduced them into Cataloochee Valley in 2001. The original 50 elk are now estimated to number around 150 in the southeastern part of the park in the Cataloochee Valley and the Cherokee area.
According to Joe Yarkovich, a wildlife biologist with the Great Smoky Mountain Park, the increase has been slow but steady. Yarkovich was quoted as saying, “With that slower growth, the whole ecosystem is able to adjust to having this new animal out there.” Yarkovich continued by saying “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 reintroduction has made quite a difference in the area. They are herbivores and assist in promoting greater plant diversity, and they also serve as a food source for coyotes and bears.
It seems, however, the animal’s biggest enemy is human. According to Yarkovich, four elk have died as a result of collisions this year.
Other places to see elk
Elk regularly cross the mountains out of Cataloochee and are often seen in Big Creek, and in the fields near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and foraging in the Oconaluftee River near Cherokee.
Check out the parking lot on the right just as you leave Cherokee and before entering the National Park. Elk can usually be seen here in the early morning or late evening in the spring. They are occasionally seen at the Island Park just outside downtown Cherokee and are often seen there crossing the river. Elk are not bound by state borders; two elk literally took the high road in 2018 and were spotted in the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains, a unique sighting which means that they took the highest road possible across Newfound Gap.
Bull elk shed their antlers around March and re-grow an impressive new set each year. A fully-grown set of antlers can weigh upward to 50 pounds and span some five feet across making it, what some suspect, the fastest growing tissue on earth.
A mature bull can weigh up to 600 to 700 pounds and can measure up to 10 feet in length.
Elk calves are born between mid-May and mid-July.
In the Cherokee language, the word for elk means “great big deer. “