Elk return to SC after centuries

Naturalists hoping animal brings friends back to county

By Jason Evans
Staff Reporter

PICKENS COUNTY — Like many who come to Pickens County, a new visitor is considering relocating to the area permanently.

Only this visitor has four legs and antlers.

There have been numerous sightings of an elk in Pickens County in recent weeks. According to a release from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the elk was first sighted on Oct. 21 at Camp McCall, a South Carolina Baptist Convention camp on U.S. Highway 178. The following day, the elk was seen at the post office in Sunset. It was also been seen in the Nine Times xommunity and on a golf course, The Reserve at Lake Keowee.

11-2 Page 1A.inddGreg Lucas with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources said the latest sighting put the elk off Stewart Gin Road near Liberty on Monday morning.

The elk is “a young bull that’s been run off from the herd” in the Great Smoky Mountains, local naturalist Dennis Chastain said.

“He’s looking for new territory,” he said. “He’s looking for a place where there’s no other bulls that can whip his rear end.”

Brandy Karr/Photo
Brandy Karr spotted this elk outside her home on Stewart Gin Road in Liberty on Monday morning.

After mating season is over, the young bull will rejoin the herd, Chastain said. But the local naturalist and others are hoping he’ll come back to this area — and establish a herd of his own.

“He’s making a mental map,” Chastain said. “He has apparently found Pickens County to his liking. He won’t forget it. He’ll need a place to have his own harem. We’re looking forward to the day that we do have an established population here.”

An animal lost to this area for so long coming back “never happens in your lifetime,” Chastain said.

“It’s an incredible phenomenon,” he said. “I think he got a warm reception. He’ll be here for a while.”

A man who later became the governor of Virginia was among the last people to see the Eastern Elk in our area, Chastain said.

William Byrd was surveying the North and South Carolina border in 1728. His diary provides “an historic first-person account” of the elk, Chastain said.

One of Byrd’s party found a pair of elk antlers and the tracks of the animal that had shed it.

“By 1728, it was rare to sight one in North or South Carolina,” Chastain said. “They had migrated north due to hunting pressure.”

Byrd’s diary describes the elk’s color as “something lighter than that of the red deer.”

He also describes their “swift speed” and keen sense of smell.

“They wind a man at a great distance,” Byrd writes. “For this reason they are seldom seen.”

He also recorded that the elk’s smell wasn’t very pleasant to encounter.

“That is priceless information,” Chastain said. “We just don’t have a lot of first impressions of what the elk looked like.”

By 1900, the population of elk in North America had dropped to the point that hunting groups and other conservation organizations became concerned that the species was headed for extinction, according to a DNR release.

Reintroduction of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in 2001. The population around the Great Smoky Mountains is estimated at 150 elk, and there have been numerous unconfirmed sightings in Upstate South Carolina in recent years, the release said.

Chastain has been up to see the herd several times.

“It’s quite a sight to see the herd right here in the Carolinas,” he said.

As the Great Smoky Mountains herd began to expand, concerned parties began preparing for the animal’s eventual foray into Pickens County. A number of years ago, Chastain was contacted by Dr. Carl Walsh, president of the South Carolina chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

“He said ‘We need to do something in advance before the elk shows up,’” Chastain recalled. “It was inevitable that that would happen.”

Chastain began bringing interested parties to the conversation, to help prepare for elk arrival.

“Everybody agreed what a wonderful thing it would be if they should show up,” he said.

Chastain said the elk of days gone by were probably smaller than the elk of today.

“A mature elk in the west is going to weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds,” Chastain said. “That’s getting in the range of a horse. A mature bull (elk) then probably weighed in at more than 800 pounds. That’s a large animal for this area. An extraordinary deer weighs 200 pounds — we think of that as just a hog.”

The elk was an important animal to the Cherokee of this area, Chastain said.

“One elk would feed a tribe of Cherokee for a week or more,” he said.

Portions of the animal’s meat would be mixed with various fruits to create pemmican.

“That mixture would last forever,” Chastain said. “It wouldn’t mold, it wouldn’t rot. The citric acid in the dried fruits would help preserve things. There was certain wisdom to these Native American dietary practices.”

When an elk was killed, “everybody would descend on it,” he said.

“It was a communal affair,” Chastain said. “They used every part of the elk.”

Bone marrow was an important part of the Cherokee diet. The animal’s hide would be part of the roof of a Cherokee dwelling.

“It was an important animal to the early Native Americans,” Chastain said. “It was a big blow to them when it disappeared.”

Should the elk return with a harem to Pickens County, and that herd grow to sufficient numbers, it is possible a limited hunting season could be established to help control the population.

“For now, we certainly don’t want anybody shooting them,” Chastain said.

While they’re hoping the elk stays — and brings back friends — wildlife officials warn residents not to get too close to the four-legged tourist, who probably weighs in around 700 pounds.

“People get a false sense of security, because elk don’t mind being approached,” N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Justin McVey said in a release put out by DNR. “But they are still wild animals and can be very dangerous. All it would take is for that elk to swing its antlers, and it could really hurt somebody.”

Motorists are also advised to use caution when driving on Upstate roads where the elk might be roaming, especially at sunrise and sunset.