elk in cherokee


At one time, centuries ago, elk were plentiful in the southern Appalachians, but overhunting led to a decline by 1790. In 2001, the National Park Service successfully reintroduced elk to the Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making sightings possible today.

In the Cherokee language, the word for elk means “great big deer.” If you want to experience elk for yourself, the fall “rut” or breeding season is one of the most exciting times to visit Cherokee, North Carolina. Between mid-September and late October, you can hear a sound called “bugling,” which is a distinctive call of the bulls during the mating season. You may also hear the clash of antlers as bulls challenge each other in a battle for dominance. Elk calves are born between mid-May and mid-July.

To learn more about these beautiful and mighty creatures, we spoke to Caleb R. Hickman, PhD, Supervisory Fish and Wildlife Biologist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

How are elk viewed in Cherokee, NC?

Today, you can observe mixed feelings. We, of course, hear most of the negative stuff when an animal gets into a garden, but our surveys (when quantified) show that most people do indeed like them. Some of the issues do include elk getting into small gardens and small farms. There is also a problem when tourists stop traffic to take a picture or invade private property. The National Park calls these elk jams, but we have a bigger problem when people want to pull into driveways and turn around in yards. We do not suggest that people view elk from busy roads or private residencies.

Do you see elk quite often in Cherokee? Where do you most often see them?

There are some places that you might catch a glimpse of elk. A perfect place is while fishing in the Oconaluftee or lower Raven Fork Rivers. Elk cross the river up and down and will often be in the woods just off the river somewhere. We also have a nice parking area right as you leave Cherokee and before entering the National Park. In the spring, elk can be seen here in the morning and late afternoon to early evening. The Island Park, just outside of the downtown area, is also a good spot to occasionally see elk as they move across the river.

Can you offer tips (how safe a distance to keep, what not to do, etc.) for sightings?

If you see an animal, it’s often best to keep a safe distance of 50 yards (150 feet), just to be safe. If you can stay in your vehicle, that is ideal as well. If you happen upon an elk on the trail or in the river, please refrain from approaching them or cornering them. They are wild animals. In the spring, cows will defend a calf and in the fall, bulls will be full of hormones that make them want to fight everything. Do not block traffic or pull into residential property. Elk can be safely viewed from a parking area in many places. If you see them crossing, do not interact with your car. Officers or our staff often show up to help keep everyone safe. Please do what you’re asked and it will be enjoyable for everyone.​

elk crossing oconaluftee river

When is the best time to see them?

This varies a lot. In the early spring, they are moving during the day but as summer approaches, they are often seen in the early morning and early evening. When the fall approaches, we start to see them move into the mountains and out of view. Bulls get together for a short while and the rut starts.

What is the current population of elk in the Smokies?

That’s the question of the day and one very important for determining whether this population is sustainably growing. We have been working with the state of North Carolina and The Great Smoky Mountains National Park to develop a way to determine the number. Right now, we can only estimate a minimum count of about 140, because we know that many are in the woods somewhere, outside of our search capabilities. I introduced a method to our group (used other places as well) that uses fecal DNA to identify individuals so that we do not have double counts in different places and we can sample much more easier than putting a tag or collar on an animal, which is expensive and uses dangerous chemicals for sedation.

When do elk shed their antlers?

The male elk usually shed around March, but we’ve seen them retain a rack for quite a while after. These should not be picked up by visitors.

Do elk always travel in herds? What is the biggest group you’ve seen in Cherokee?

No. There is a term “Lone Elk” for a good reason. Both males and females can be found alone. We have counted a little over 30 animals in a person’s yard.

elk in the woods

Do you know any Cherokee myths or stories involving elk?

Unfortunately, these stories may have been lost with the loss of elk so long ago. There are stories about deer. Because the name (A-wi-e-qua) translates to “Deer Big,” it’s difficult to say whether elk were considered very different from white-tailed deer (just A-wi). We do know, due to trash midden excavations, that elk were not a big source of the Cherokee diet. In my mind, this may either mean that they were not common (fearful and stayed far away) or Cherokee revered them.​