Return of the
Planning for this event
began in 1989. Three questions had to be answered before any elk
could be moved into the park. Can the park support a herd of elk?
Is it politically acceptable to allow elk to roam the park? Will
there be enough funding to support this endeavor? Luckily, the
answer to all of the above was yes. Several organizations played
important roles in the lengthy process that brought the elk back
to the park. The Rocky Mountain Elk Association, the National Park
Service, The Friends of the Smokies, and the National Forest Service
are the key players that made the release possible. More than one
point one million dollars made it possible, all of it from private
sources. The dedication of a cast of dozens made the historical
event possible. Some Park Service employees donated their time to
work on the project. One employee commented that for the past year
he saw more of this project than his wife.
The release that took
place is known as a "Soft release". The elk were released
into a pen and won't be released into the wild until the surrounding
forest "greens up". This should be sometime during
Until then, the herd of 13 cows and 12 bulls will be monitored
for diseases and parasites. The release into an acclimation pen
also insures that once they are released into the wild, the elk
will be less likely to roam long distances. Wandering out of the
park would mean certain death. This same issue plagued the release
of the red wolf, several years ago.
In the large meadow
at the end of the road in Cataloochee, a small town was set up for
the event. Several tents were set up in anticipation of a
large crowd. In the main tent, a closed circuit TV screen was
set up so that those that could not walk to the elk pen could view
the release. This was actually the "best view in the house".
Sandwiches, cider, home made cakes and snacks were made available
by the Friends of the Smokies organization. It was a carnival atmosphere
that was very exciting. Several dignitaries made speeches and the
details of the event was explained by Park Officials. By the end
of the day over 600 tickets were handed out to visitors that wanted
to view the elk.
These magnificent animals
were transported to the Smokies in cattle carriers. In an area near
the circus tents, the animals waited in the trailers to be released.
When the time approached, a park employee would attach a tractor
to the carriers and slowly tow them to the release area. This only
added to the anticipation.