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Return of the Elk

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 April. 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. 

 

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