See Tennessee’s largest mammal this New Year

Published 8:51 am Thursday, December 31, 2015

Metro Services Tennesseans may now view elk in their home state after 15 years of reintroduction work.

Metro Services Tennesseans may now view elk in their home state after 15 years of reintroduction work.

Tennesseans don’t have to travel far to bring in the New Year viewing elk, an opportunity that has not existed until recent years.
The last known wild elk were killed in the 1860s, but thanks to state restoration efforts, they may now be observed in herds near Lafolette, Tennessee.
The elk were reintroduced in December of 2000 over a total of five releases. Bennett said school children come to the tower for viewing field trips and they can’t believe how big the animals are. Based on weight, Bennett said elk are the largest animals in Tennessee, averaging between 600 and 800 pounds.
“They’ve been gone for over 150 years, so it’s pretty special to be able to bring an animal back, and a lot of people don’t know that we have them,” said Steve Bennett, Tennessee’s Region 4 elk Restoration Project leader and wildlife biologist.
In an established 670,000-acre elk restoration zone, Bennett said the elk population is between 300 and 400. While recording the fall census this year, one man reported seeing 42 together in a herd at sundown below the Hatfield Mountain viewing tower.
“The best place that we have, or that anybody has, would be the elk viewing tower at Hatfield Knob in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area just outside of Lafollette,” said Bennett. “That’s the best place we can go and have consistent chances of seeing elk.”
More than 50 calves were born this May and June, which Bennett said is the most he has ever found.
The best time of year to hear the elk “bugle” is during breeding season in September and October, but as colder months approach, Bennett said they herd together, making it the best time of year to see the most animals.
“You have a really good chance of seeing elk anytime you go, but this time of year, during evening hours is the best,” Bennett said.
Kentucky has many more elk than Tennessee, he said, but Kentuckians travel here for the convenience of the viewing area.
Sometimes people even see elk on the drive to the viewing area, he said. The road is gravel, but accessible for all vehicles. From the parking area, the tower is a quarter mile walk and allows views of the feeding areas.
To reach Hatfield Mountain, drive north out of Lafollette on Highway 25W, approximately seven miles to the top of the mountain. Turn left at the red gate located at the top of the mountain (just before the road starts to break over the mountain and go down the back side.) Proceed on the gravel road approximately 3.1 miles to a fork in the road. Take the right fork approximately 1.4 miles to the parking area.
Bennett said the only other elk viewing area in the state would be Cataloochee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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