What would you do if a 500-pound animal, larger than a black bear, decided it was going to get up close and personal? Asheville resident James York was in that situation during a recent trip to the Smokies.
A North Carolina photographer's close encounter with a young elk has prompted the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to remind the public about how to safely interact with animals in the park.
James York was sitting on the side of the road on the Cataloochee Trail in October when the spike elk took an interest in him. The elk approached and began butting his head against York. Luckily, those sharp antlers were far enough apart that York wasn't injured. That encounter, captured on camera by another photographer and posted on Youtube, has gone viral.
That incident and other recent encounters led to a press release from GSMNP officials on Friday, reminding park visitors to exercise caution as they view and photograph wildlife, particularly bears, elk, and deer, to best protect both the animals and themselves.
Park Rangers encourage the use of binoculars, spotting scopes, or cameras with telephoto lenses to best enjoy wildlife. Feeding, touching, disturbing, and willfully approaching wildlife within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife, are illegal in the park. If an animal approaches you, you should slowly back away to give the animal the space it likely needs to pass. In most cases, the animals are just passing through, and have no interest in getting too close to people.
In the case of York's elk encounter, rangers said York did nearly everything correct. He did not approach the animal, and did not interact with it. However, they said York should have walked slowly away immediately when the bull came up to him. York said he didn't, because he felt he could better protect himself by staying close to the ground and curled into a ball
Experts think the elk likely thought York was competition in his search for a female, and was displaying his dominance. This is elk mating season. Neither York nor the elk were hurt.
Not all animal encounters end as well, for the person or the animal.
"Wild animals typically avoid visitor interaction unless they become food conditioned," said Park Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver. "If an animal starts approaching and threatening human safety, we have several proactive steps we take to effectively manage the situation that bests protects the animal and the public. However, if the negative behavior escalates, our options in dealing with the animal quickly become limited."
Recently, biologists removed the antlers of a large bull elk that was spending a lot of time in high use, public areas in fields adjacent to the Oconluftee Visitor Center, Mountain Farm Museum, and the Oconaluftee River Trail in Cherokee. The 800-pound elk charged several visitors posing significant danger to the public. Now that the mating sesaon is essentially over, the elk's aggressive behavior should lessen and by removing his antlers which are annually shed, biologists further reduced the risk for harm to visitors.
For more information on how to safely view wildlife, please visit the park's website at http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/wildlifeviewing.htm.