Cataloochee elk wanders into Cowee Valley

A 4- or 5-year-old female elk offspring from a re-introduced herd has been spotted by several Cowee Valley residents, including at least one newspaper editor, who pause to marvel at the estimated 750-pound animal as it grazes on grass and clovers. Photo by Teresa S. Tabor

Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer

Cowee Valley resident Bobby Collins found that the elk visiting his yard would nibble yellow corn out of his hand. N.C. district wildlife biologist Justin McVey advised of the danger of proximity to the wild animal in addition to the disruption to its diet and natural caution in human settings, like roadways.
Photo Courtesy Bobby Collins

Bobby Collins couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw an elk in his backyard some five months ago. In his 42 years, he had never seen an elk in the Cowee Valley. Now every time it visits his lawn to graze on grass or pull ivy off the trees, the whole family goes outside to marvel. “A week ago Saturday it was at the house at about 10 o’clock and stayed all day,” the Macon County Schools bus mechanic and part-time farmer said. “A big ole cow elk, weigh about 750 pounds.” Two weeks ago when she visited, Collins fed her homegrown yellow corn from his hand down near his house on Carl Sorrells Rd. “It feels just like a cow eating out of your hand. It just nibbles the corn out of your hand,” he said. Collins knows its dangerous to get so close to a wild animal and won’t allow his 12- and 17-year-old to do so. Neighbors have taken notice of the elk, snapping and posting photos on Facebook and filling up their feeders to keep the lonely female elk coming back. But both her loneliness, and her proximity to humans are bad signs, said North Carolina district wildlife biologist Justin McVey, who tagged the elk in January and has been tracking her GPS coordinates. “The only odd thing is that she’s alone and acclimated to people,” he said, noting that the parasite known as “brain worm,” which also affects white tail deer, causes female elk to separate from their herd, lose their fear of humans and become emaciated. McVey said he believed the 4.5 to 5.5-year-old adult elk to be the offspring of a herd of 52 elk that were released in the Cataloochee Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in about 2002. Some have stayed in the park, some cross in and out, and some like the Cowee elk have made their home outside the park boundaries. “Our management plan is to let them go wherever they want to go,” he said. McVey said the elk appeared healthy with lots of body fat when he tagged her in mid-January and he did not believe it to be bred, as rumors have it. Told neighbors were feeding the elk and some even from their hand and petting it, McVey responded with dismay. “That’s a horrible idea.” He explained. “It’s never a good idea to get a 700 pound animal that close to you. They could kick you, run you over, a myriad of things can happen.” Creating a comfort-level with humans also disrupts the elk’s natural diet and tendency for caution in human areas, such as roadways. McVey said elk have been struck and killed in Cherokee and Henderson counties recently. “It’s best not to feed the elk and keep them as wild as possible,” he said. “That’s the best way to ensure their safety.” Still, Cowee residents like the majestic animal to frequent their patch of grass, even if it takes some shucked corn. Said Collins, “It’s pretty neat to have one in your yard.”