North Carolina Proposes Opening Elk Hunt

NC Elk
Bull beneath Great Smoky Mountains. Photo by Light of the Wild, Scott Hotaling

In 2001, an experimental herd of 25 elk was reintroduced to the state of North Carolina. Now, after 15 years of special protection, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) is hoping to remove the species from the state’s list of protected species and allow the possibility of opening an elk-hunting season in the future.

After the first release in 2001, another 27 elk were reintroduced to the Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2002. The population has since been growing, but an exact estimate is unknown. The National Park Service, NCWRC and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation are working together to better count and manage the increasing number of elk in the area. Management of the herd outside of the national park was transferred to the NCWRC in 2008. Local experts say that today the state has a rough estimate of around 140-160 elk.

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The NCWRC has conducted a feasibility study of establishing a huntable elk population in North Carolina. The study included a biological assessment, population growth models, and a landowner survey to evaluate the attitudes of stakeholders towards the elk population and the potential for human-elk conflict. The elk have become a local tourist attraction, causing some public concern about elk ranging outside of the protected Smoky Mountains.

A future hunting season would be an effective way to manage the growing elk population while benefiting affected landowners. The proposal includes the removal of elk from the state’s list of special concern, giving the NCWRC the ability to open a hunt down the road. A potential elk season would take place from October 1 to November 1 on a permit only basis with any legal firearm or archery equipment. Two depredation permits were previously issued in 2013 and 2014 to remove nuisance elk, although none were ever taken. The NCWRC has said only one or two permits per hunting season would be initially issued.

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The population will need to be monitored to observe trends in demographics and the influence of harvest. Human-elk conflict incidents and visitors coming to view elk will also be recorded. Hunting in North Carolina would only be allowed on private land. Elk within the borders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will always remain protected. The NCWRC is also trying to acquire land for public ownership to be managed as elk habitat.

The NCWRC held public hearings on proposed changes to state hunting, wildlife management and regulations throughout January. The comment period for all other proposed regulations will run through January 25th. After considering all public comments, the 19 wildlife commissioners will meet on February 11th to decide whether to adopt the proposals. Approved proposals will take effect in August 2016.

Current population evaluations indicate the elk herd can sustain a limited harvest. Other elk populations in the eastern United States that are now legally hunted have usually reached population sizes of above 200 individuals before a hunting season was enacted. North Carolina’s reintroduced elk population represents an opportunity for recreation and a need for wildlife management.

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