Thanks to the support of the High Country Charitable Foundation, Grandfather Mountain, the not-for-profit nature park run by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, was able to make improvements to its elk habitat.
High Country Charitable Foundation, based in nearby Banner Elk, N.C., is a nonprofit organization with a vision to help the Avery County, N.C., community by providing for neighbors and animals in need. This specific funding allowed for two important updates to the behind-the-scenes area of Grandfather Mountain’s elk habitat – a reliable water source in the animals’ shifting paddock and the reinforcement of the fencing in this location.
Downhill from the guest overlook at Grandfather Mountain’s elk habitat, and toward the back of the enclosure, are two shifting paddocks, or smaller enclosed areas. These paddocks are used daily to temporarily secure the mountain’s two male elk while animal habitat keepers access the primary habitat to clean, distribute food and perform other duties. The paddocks can also be used to isolate an animal. For instance, last year, Merle, a resident elk in the habitats, sustained a hoof injury and needed to be housed in the paddock as he healed over a number of weeks. The elk may also be placed in the paddocks if a lengthy maintenance project is required in the main habitat.
During this time, Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation staff realized the need to have a watering system in this behind-the-scenes area. When given any kind of bucket or pool, the elk immediately turn it over, and when temperatures dip below freezing (which is very common during a Grandfather Mountain winter), there was no way to keep the water from icing over.
A portion of the recent grant from the High Country Charitable Foundation went toward the purchase and installation of two Nelson watering systems. The stainless-steel watering bowls have insulated waterlines that are buried underground and a 250-watt heater to protect the system from freezing during cold weather.
“The new watering system in the shifting paddock is a game-changer for being able to manage and care for the elk,” said Christie Tipton, animal habitats curator at the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. “We can now house the elk in the shifting paddocks for longer periods of time when required and have the peace of mind that the elk will have a consistent water source that will not freeze in the winter.”
The rest of the grant funding went toward fencing reinforcement in this same shifting paddock area. This fencing has taken a beating from the park’s approximately 700-pound elk over the years. At times, and mostly during rut, the male elk will hit the fence. That repeated impact could compromise the integrity of some of the shifting paddock fencing. Improvements made in the last few months include the installation of bigger poles, heavy-grade fence ties, additional support rails and expanded metal paneling to reinforce approximately 230 feet of the fence.
“During the rut, the elk have a tendency to push on the fencing when they are sparring with each other or trying to show dominance,” said Tipton. “The reinforcement and improvements ensure that the fencing remains sturdy and safe for the elk and habitat keepers.”
Grandfather Mountain’s resident elk not only provide an exciting opportunity to see one of North America’s most majestic animals in its natural habitat, but also highlight an important conservation story about one of the area’s native species.
Elk populations once thrived in the High Country of North Carolina. In the 18th and 19th centuries, populations of the eastern elk, a distinct subspecies of elk that inhabited the Northern and Eastern United States, had their numbers decimated due to overhunting and loss of habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern elk extinct in 1880.
Grandfather Mountain’s resident elk Merle and Watson were born in August 2017 at the farm of Tom Smith, an elk farmer in Salisbury, N.C. They arrived on Grandfather Mountain in December 2017. The two are half-brothers, with Merle being the more dominant and Watson being more laid-back and calm.
Grandfather Mountain had not previously housed elk before 2017 but decided to bring back these former residents of the region for guests to learn about them and the important role they play in the area’s ecosystem. To find out more about Merle and Watson, visit www.grandfather.com/elk.
The nonprofit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain.