Elk Versus Photographer Great Smoky Mountains National Park
An encounter between a young spike male elk (one really can't call him a "bull elk") went viral this week. The young elk took an unusual interest in a photographer at Cataloochie Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and appeared to be playfully sparring with the man who kept his head down early in the encounter. This intrigues me because I am very familiar with the elk in the GSMNP and have filmed them often and never seen any act like this unless people tried to approach or otherwise act threatening. Indeed, as the video below shows you can be quiet and low-profile and get exceptional video of the elk going about their business. A video playlist of some of my encounters can be seen here. Huge bull elks such as this 800 pounder I filmed below could kill you in a heartbeat if provoked.
Sadly the elk was killed by the park service after this event. I had many questions about the encounter - and it turns out this young elk had been causing some problems before and that people had been feeding it Doritos and chips etc., probably starting when it was still a calf. This is very unfortunate, and of course against the law and violation comes with a steep fine. But people will be idiots and feed the wildlife and the odds of being caught are low. I do not know how aggressive the rangers are at enforcement, but I do know that budget cuts have thinned their ranks. Cataloochie in particular is unfortunately set up for this kind of animal abuse because it is so accessible to people just passing through. The classic conundrum of the popular national park, how to somehow preserve wild nature while making it safe and easy for people to experience. The reality is most people never get more than 100 yards from the car at any time when they visit the park.
Clearly conditioning this young elk to expect a salty treat when people stand by the road is the root cause of this viral encounter. The photographer's actions can always be second guessed - he had an opportunity at the 2:42 mark in the video to just walk/run away as it appeared the elk was losing interest. Instead, he turned back around and that seemed to escalate the encounter leading to the head-butting. But he didn't have the advantage of our after-the-fact viewpoint. It really boils down to a fascinating, but sad convergence of an elk who had been fed against the law and a photographer who loves wildlife trying to get a good shot. The underlying message of this video should not be lost - and that is feeding large mammals like elk and bears results in endangerment of the public and, sadly, almost always is a death sentence for the animal.
An opportunity to just walk away early on?