Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy acquires 187-acre Wilkins Creek tract

Aerial view of Wilkins Creek
Aerial view of Wilkins Creek tract. Photo by Southwings and Jake Faber, courtesy of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy

Press release from the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy:

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy purchased 187 acres in Haywood County near the Pigeon River to protect a corridor for wildlife grazing and movement. Encircled by the Pisgah National Forest and adjoining the NC Welcome Center on I-40, the Wilkins Creek property is very near a large box culvert under the interstate, which provides a way for wildlife to travel safely from one side of the highway to the other.

This Wilkins Creek property has a unique role in connecting wildlife habitats across the landscape,” says Michelle Pugliese, SAHC’s land protection director. “The property falls within an important wildlife corridor in the Pigeon River Gorge and contains open areas that may provide grazing habitat for elk coming off the adjoining Hurricane Mountain. Unlike many tracts SAHC has protected, this one has areas of sparse forest cover resulting from a timber harvest. Some species, such as the reintroduced elk population, require such openings along with intact forest.”

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, and other partners identified this property in the Pigeon River Gorge as a conservation priority because it provides a key corridor for elk and other animals to move in the landscape.

Our NC elk need a place to live and appropriate food to eat to meet their basic needs,” says Kim Delozier, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s conservation program manager for the Eastern U.S. “The Wilkins Creek tract specifically will provide habitat in young forest and forest openings — habitats that are lacking in our NC mountains. Also, we have a responsibility to help elk, deer, bear and other wildlife cross the interstate and other roads, which create barriers for safe movement. SAHC’s purchase of the Wilkins Creek tract is a major step to accomplishing this goal now and in the future.”

Following the successful reintroduction of elk in Cataloochee Valley in 2001 and 2002 the elk herd has grown from the initial 52 animals to about 150 today. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association, Wildlands Network, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC Wildlife Federation, and other conservation partners have been conducting research and strategic planning focused on the survival and movement of elk, bear, and deer in the Pigeon River Gorge. They found that animals traveling in the vicinity of Cataloochee Valley and the Smokies regularly cross I-40 in search of openings where they can graze, resulting in significant animal fatalities.

The large box culvert under I-40 forms a passageway for wildlife, enabling animals to safely reach the forest openings on the Wilkins Creek property. The land that SAHC purchased plays an important role for elk to live and move, and the property will serve as a research site on wildlife habitat crossings. 

Protecting the Wilkins Creek tract represents a long-term, important investment in the well-being of wildlife throughout the Southern Appalachians,” says Jeff Hunter, Senior Program Manager with National Parks Conservation Association. “Ongoing wildlife monitoring by National Parks Conservation Association and Wildlands Network indicate that black bear, bobcat, white-tailed deer, and migrating bird species including a variety of wood warblers frequently use this property. Protecting the land also advances wildlife connectivity efforts throughout the Pigeon River Gorge, between Pisgah National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We will continue to support progress in restoring landscape connectivity and reducing wildlife-vehicle conflicts by working in partnership with groups like SAHC.” 

This acquisition expands SAHC’s work in securing important habitat and wildlife corridors in the region. In 2017, SAHC acquired 147 acres to the south at Stevens Creek, a quiet cove on the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Stevens Creek tract contains important habitat and water resources near the remote Cataloochee Valley area of the national park.

SAHC plans to own the Wilkins Creek property for the short term, managing it for habitat and working with partners to monitor the presence and movement of wildlife on the property.

We hope to transfer the Wilkins Creek tract to public agency ownership in the future,” adds Pugliese. “We are very grateful to all of our supporters for making this exciting project possible.”

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