Smoky Mountain News: Farmers pay the price as elk herd damage crops, fences

An excerpt from the Smoky Mountain News article:

It is a common story — a species once eliminated returns to find not everyone welcomes it back them with open arms. The return of wolves to northern Wisconsin, the reintroduction of beavers to the United Kingdom, and now the elk in Western North Carolina.

After disappearing from North Carolina in the late 1700s, the elk have since made a comeback from the history books in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — from zero to a successful and ever-growing herd in short time. But with their renewed success in their historic home, so comes a newfound set of problems.

The next chapter in the story of the elk recently began with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission giving the go-ahead for two Haywood County landowners to kill the massive herbivores. Citing property destruction and disruption of agricultural operations, a dairy farmer and the owner of a pumpkin patch applied to the state for depredation permits.

Those permits were granted by the head of the Wildlife Commission and give each farmer permission to kill one elk in an allotted time frame. They are the first of their kind awarded in the area around Cataloochee Valley — the section of the park where elk were reintroduced in 2001 and have proliferated.

Whether the permits are warranted, or will even be effective in the long run, is a question of debate. What is not debatable is that the species, as it expands outwards from the protection of Cataloochee Valley and into the cornfields and cow pastures of the farmers surrounding the park, is starting to step on toes. …

The reintroduction of elk to the Park started with two small herds of 52 elk in the early 2000s. After some difficulty establishing a breeding population, the herd jumped to more than 120 in 2009, the Park’s last official count. That was about the same year Tony McGaha’s phone really started ringing with local residents complaining about the elk.

“It’s getting more and more abundant all the time — all the calls,” said McGaha, who plays the role of agricultural agent, cattleman and cattle advocate in WNC, making him the ideal person to call when something goes wrong on the farm or in the back forty. “We used to never get them.”

Although a bulk of the herd stayed put in Cataloochee, where they pass the time posing for photographs for tourists and grazing in the flat valley floors, a contingent has since branched out into the surrounding communities of Jonathon Creek and Maggie Valley.

By McGaha’s estimates, there are about a dozen elk that are known saboteurs in the region. They’ve been blamed for desecrated graveyards, leveled plots of corn, trampled gardens, dead dogs — the list goes on. For McGaha and his neighbors, one of the most aggravating, and costly, attitudes of the elk is their blatant disregard for fences.

“The problem is they have no respect for a fence whatsoever,” McGaha said. “They try to jump them, and their back legs don’t get across, and they take it down.”


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