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Wednesday, 18 November 2009 14:11

Smokies elk shot down in Cataloochee Valley

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A man has been arrested for shooting an elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last Friday.

The elk was shot around 10:30 a.m. in Cataloochee Valley. Another park visitor who happened to be in the area got a description of the man’s vehicle and license plate number, which was used to track down the vehicle’s owner.

A Special Agent with the National Park Service who was assigned to the case drove to the man’s house, five hours away in Granville County, N.C., and confronted him. The suspect reportedly confessed to the offense, according to a press release issued by the Smokies.

The Smokies elk herd is well-loved, even revered. The news has been hard to take for many elk fans who make regular trips to Cataloochee to watch and observe the herd.

Esther Blakely, a volunteer with the Elk Bugle Corp who sees the elk every week, was shocked when she heard the news.

“It is just sad,” Blakely said. “I am still having trouble wrapping my head around someone going into the national park, in this peaceful valley, and shooting this magnificent animal. These are protected animals. This is not a hunting ground. It is a national park.”

Elk once roamed the Smokies but were hunted to extinction in the 1800s. In the eight years since, 52 elk were reintroduced in the park.

This is the first incident of an elk being shot in the park.

“The many visitors and volunteers who come to Cataloochee expressly to watch the elk constitute a very effective surveillance network, which has undoubtedly prevented elk poaching from occurring earlier,” said Steve Kloster, Acting Chief Ranger.

While Cataloochee is certainly a popular destination, it would have been far from crowded at that time of morning on a weekday outside of peak tourist season. The sound of a gunshot reverberating throughout the valley would have sent up a red flag to anyone who was in the area. It is currently illegal to have a loaded and accessible firearm in a national park.

“Having a loaded weapon in the park would have been a violation in its own right,” said Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the park.

The bull elk, which was sporting an impressive antler rack, was left lying in the field at the edge of the woodline where it had been shot. A bull elk can weigh up to 800 pounds. Rangers took the dead elk to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine for a necropsy, which is still pending.

Smokies rangers, the NPS Special Agent and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission cooperated on the investigation. The Park is now working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to develop the case. The suspect’s name will be released once they figure out all the charges against him.

Those convicted of poaching in a national park can face up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000. The weapon and the vehicle used in the crime also can be seized.

The loss of the bull will not negatively affect the long-term viability of the herd, which now numbers 105, but it is an affront what national parks embody.

“We do see this as a very serious theft of the public’s enjoyment of their national park,” Kloster said. “Thousands of visitors come to see these elk each year, and many of them know each animal by sight.”

Miller said elk fans are taking the loss quite personally. The elk that was shot, known as #21, was particularly well-loved.

“He is one of the largest, most magnificent dominant bulls in the valley,” Blakely said.

Only a few bulls are considered dominant. The bulls jockey for their dominant position during the mating season, known as the rut, which occurs in early fall. Dominant bulls emerge from the rut with a harem.

The bull that was shot would have already bred with the females in his harem by now. The bull is no longer crucial to the success of his harem after mating.

Visitation is up in Cataloochee so far this year, with more than 80,000 visitors for the year so far. Last year saw only 75,000. The Bugle Corp has 82 volunteers who take turns educating visitors about the elk and ethical wildlife viewing.

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