We pulled the car over to join the line up of cars on the side of the road just beyond the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, NC. We quickly saw the female elk that everyone was getting out of their cars, toting their phones and cameras, to photograph. She had just emerged from the tree line, and was wandering into the pasture to graze. More females followed her, emerging by twos and threes, or just one at a time. I had seen elk before, but not in such a natural setting. In Yellowstone they had taken over the streets of a town, and the rangers weren’t so much herding the elk as they were herding the people who were getting too close to them. In Colorado Springs I saw them on a lawn of a business on one corner of a busy intersection, with a traffic light and constant traffic just a few yards away. The elk were not fazed by either of these situations.
What was so different about this situation was the appearance of a huge buck, sporting a very impressive set of antlers. He also emerged from the tree line, and was bugling, and obviously rounding up his herd, which had scattered a bit. It’s the season of ‘rut’, so he was probably establishing his dominance to any other bull elk in the vicinity. It was interesting that a lone female quite a distance away, but in the same pasture, was of no interest to him, beyond a glance in her direction now and then. She apparently didn’t belong. Despite his attentions the females slowly continued to wander in the general direction of the road, and the dozens of people lined up beside their cars, intent on getting their pictures. And as they wandered so did the bull, right towards us, until a female ranger suddenly ran a short way into the pasture, waving her arms, and shoo’d the gals back to the center. I thought she was carrying a camera and long lens, but I was corrected, it was a tranquilizer gun. I’m happy to report that it wasn’t necessary to use it, at least on that day. I guess seeing the beautiful scenery, and having a chance to see the animals going about their business in the same way that their ancestors had done, is the entire point of a visit to our national parks, isn’t it?