Written by Karen Chávez, Asheville Citizen-Times
Three Western North Carolina men were charged with knowingly acquiring elk antlers in Pisgah National Forest and have paid federal fines, the U.S. Attorney's Office said Tuesday.
Jerry Meeks, 28, of Canton; Robert Davis, 40, of Waynesville; and Aaron Smathers, 39, of Canton each paid a $500 fine and a $25 processing fee, Anne M. Tompkins, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, said in a statement.
They had acquired the elk antlers at Dicks Branch, an area off White Oak Road in the Haywood County area of the national forest, said Sgt. Andrew Helton of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Law Enforcement Division. The antlers came from bull elk No. 16, a seven-by-seven-point buck that was found dead in February 2011.
"We don't know what the cause of death was - it could have been natural," Helton said of elk No. 16. "We feel certain these individuals didn't poach the elk. They cut the antlers off."
Helton said the case is unrelated to the poaching of three elk found in May in the Mount Sterling area outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In that case, a bull elk was killed by a .22-caliber firearm; a cow elk was shot in the neck with birdshot from a shotgun; and a pregnant cow elk was killed by undetermined gunshot.
Possessing any parts of an elk - a species of special concern in the state - is a violation of the Lacey Act as well as North Carolina wildlife law. Herds of elk once roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains and the eastern United States before being decimated by overhunting in the late 1700s.
An experimental release of elk into the Great Smoky Mountains began in 2001 with a population of 25 elk, followed by 27 in 2002. The release has been considered successful, with the current number of elk in the region numbering 140, said park wildlife biologist Joe Yarkovich.
"Because the herd is so small, losing three elk to poaching is a big loss because it can potentially affect the future of the herd," Yarkovich said.
"Wild elk will live into their teens, about 14 or 15 years old. The three elk poached were 2-3 years old, so we should have gotten several more calves from their lifetimes. About nine-10 calves are born over a lifetime to each female. There were two females killed, so that's about 16-18 calves that we lost."
The bull elk found dead last year was a mature, dominant bull, which spent most of his time outside the park, Yarkovich said, and only came back into the park to breed in the fall. He was estimated at 10-11 years old.
Helton said bull elk No. 16 was just a skeleton when it was found, but there had been a reward for any information leading to the arrest, criminal conviction of civil penalty for the individual responsible for the elk's death.
The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the National Park Service.
Helton said someone called the wildlife commission about the three men having the elk antlers. He said it is "almost 100 percent certain" the men came across the elk carcass and cut the antlers off.
"What makes it illegal is elk is a species of special concern. They were possessing a part of the elk," Helton said. "Their antlers are so impressive. It's not every day someone can get a set of elk antlers out in the wild."
But, he said, while picking up deer antlers found in the woods is OK, it is illegal to possess elk antlers.
"Before you take animal remains, you need to contact us. Any elk part is off limits," Helton said. "We are very serious about protecting these animals. Our two goals at the wildlife commission are to protect our resources and to protect public safety."
While there is a $5,000 reward offered by the N.C. Wildlife Federation for information leading to an arrest in the poaching of three elk found in May, there are no leads in that case.