Great Smoky Mountains National Park Officials Defend Putting Down Head-Butting Elk
When the elk rut comes about, elk can behave highly unpredictably. In the Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park one young bull gathered national attention last week when photos surfaced showing him repeatedly butting a photographer who was sitting on the ground.
The elk is in the news again this week, because of his death. Park officials decided they had to put down the bull because of his behavior. On Monday, park officials issued a release to explain their decision.
The decision to euthanize an animal of any kind in the park is never made lightly. Elk are iconic symbols in the Smokies, but they are also dangerous wild animals. The park provides education about elk behavior and safe wildlife viewing in a variety of ways including signage, brochures, park website, ranger-led programs, and on-site volunteers who provide information daily at Oconaluftee and Cataloochee during the calving and breeding season.
On October 20, 2013, a photographer in Cataloochee was approached by a young male elk while sitting alongside the road taking pictures. Photos and video of the encounter have been circulated widely. The elk had likely been fed by visitors and had lost his instinctive fear of humans. It associated humans with food and had been approaching visitors seeking handouts.
Did the park do anything to discourage this elk’s behavior?
Wildlife biologists use aversive conditioning techniques to haze animals that are becoming food conditioned due to visitors feeding them. These techniques usually include firing loud firecrackers, physically chasing the animal, and shooting them in the rump with bean bags or paintballs.
Between September and last week, park biologists aggressively hazed this elk 28 times to discourage it from approaching the road and visitors. They captured, sedated, tagged, and re-released it on site. This technique has proven to be much more successful than relocation because it causes the animal to associate the place and people with an unpleasant experience. The elk did not respond to attempts by biologists to change its behavior. The behavior that it learned from park visitors who had given it food had been too strongly ingrained.
By initiating physical contact with a visitor, the elk displayed an unacceptable risk to human safety. After becoming food conditioned, the elk did not respond to any attempts to keep it out of the area and away from humans. When wildlife exhibits this behavior it often escalates to more aggressive behavior creating a dangerous situation for visitors.
Why didn’t we relocate the elk or give the elk to a zoo?
The park considered relocating the elk to another public land area in North Carolina, but this was not a viable option due to the animal’s demonstrated potential to cause harm to people. If the animal had approached a child instead of an adult, the outcome for the visitor could have been very different.
The park could not release the animal to a facility that houses a captive certified herd because animals introduced into these facilities are required to have verification that they have been free of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) for the past five years. In addition, interstate transport of elk or deer is prohibited because of risk of spreading diseases such as CWD into local populations.
Do we always kill “problem” elk?
No. Elk were reintroduced to the park in 2001. In the 13 years since the reintroduction, park biologists have used aversive conditioning on a number of animals. This is the first elk that we have had to euthanize due to nuisance behavior inside the park. We treat each animal as an individual, and each situation is different. During the past few weeks a dominant bull elk near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center charged several people who were in the field area, and recently charged and damaged a vehicle. This behavior occurred during the rut season and the elk was guarding his harem. Unlike food conditioned animals that approach humans for a handout, defending a harem is natural behavior for a bull elk.
After exploring several options, the Park decided that removing the elk antlers was the best choice to protect visitors and avoid euthanizing the elk. There were no other large bull elk in the area to challenge the elk so he no longer needed the antlers for self-protection. Elk shed their antlers annually and begin regrowing them in spring. By removing the antlers, we significantly lessened the potential for physical harm and property damage.
These two incidents demonstrate the difference between offensive and defensive behavior of wildlife. The mature bull at Oconaluftee was displaying defensive behavior by defending what it perceived as a threat to its harem. The spike bull in Cataloochee was displaying offensive behavior by actively seeking contact with humans in search of food handouts and had charged visitors along the roadway multiple times. Animals displaying offensive behavior towards humans pose a greater risk to human safety.
A video of the elk butting the photographer can be seen at this site.