Skip to Main Content

Elk in Tennessee

Cervus canadensis

Height 4-5 ft. (122-152 cm). Wt.: males, 700-1000 lbs. (315-450 kgs); females, 500-600 lbs. (225-270 kgs). Beam length of antlers to 64 3/8 in. (164 cm); record spread 75 in. (188 cm). A large deer with pale yellowish rump patch, small white tail, general reddish-brown body (chestnut-brown neck with a mane in males), and huge spreading antlers on males in late summer and autumn.  Skull (Plate 32) has 34 teeth.  There are 4 mammae.

The Dwarf, or Tule Elk, now confined to a reserve in Kern Co., California, is considered a distinct species (C. nannodes) by some authors.  Some would place the N. American Elk in the Old World species elaphus.

Similar species

Moose has a large overhanging snout and brown rump.
Mule Deer is smaller and has black on the tail.
Whitetail Deer is smaller; no rump patch.
Woodland Caribou has whitish neck.

Semi open forest, mt. meadows (in summer), foothills, pains, and valleys.

Most active mornings and evenings.  Usually seen in groups of 25 or more; both sexes together in winter, old bulls in separate groups during summer.  Feeds on grasses, herbs, twigs, bark.  Migrates up mountains in spring, down in fall; males shed antlers Feb.– March; velvet shed in Aug.  Attains adult dentition at 2 1/2-3 years.  Calf has high-pitched squeal when in danger; cow has similar squeal, also sharp bark when traveling with herd; males have high-pitched bugling call that stars with a low note and ends with a few low-toned grunts, heard during rutting season, especially at night.  Lives 14 years (25 in captivity).  Females breed at 2 1/2 years.  Rut starts in Sept.; old males round up harems.

Born May-June; normally 1, rarely 2; gestation period about 8 1/2 months.  Spotted.  Able to walk a few minutes after birth.

Economic status
Can do considerable damage to vegetables, pastures, grainfields, and haystacks; a prize game mammal for meat and trophies; formerly ranged over much of continent, now restricted.  There have been numerous attempts to reestablish them, some successful, others not.  May be seen commonly in following national parks: Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Olympic, Glacier, Rocky Mt., Banff, and Jasper; also other places where they have been introduced.  Apparently established on Afognak I., Alaska (not on map).  

Source: Peterson’s Field Guide, Third Edition. 1976.

Elk Reintroduction Questions & Answers

How long has it been since elk roamed wild in the state of Tennessee?
The last historical record of an elk being sighted in Tennessee was in 1865 when one was reported to be killed in Obion County.

What was the cause of the demise of the elk population in Tennessee? 
There is no one specific reason that accounts for the demise of elk in Tennessee. Reasons for the extinction of elk in Tennessee and elsewhere in the eastern U.S. are over-exploitation by man, private ownership of land and habitat destruction.

How many elk have been reintroduced into Tennessee?
Initial plans called for 400 elk to be released into Tennessee.   As of August 2008, 201 elk have been released, these elk were released over a four-year period from 2000-2003.   An additional 34 elk were released in 2008. T   he releases occurred as follows:

Elk Date Location
50 December 19, 2000 Horsebone Ridge, Royal Blue WMA (RBWMA)
36 February 28, 2001 Montgomery Fork Creek, RBWMA
50 February 14, 2002 Montgomery Fork Creek, RBWMA
11 February 22, 2003 Hickory Creek, Sundquist WMA (SWMA)
20 February 22, 2003 Sundquist release site (SWMA)
34 March 8, 2008 Horsebone Ridge, Royal Blue WMA (RBWMA)

Due to the restrictions from the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), the Agency was unable to release the intended amount. Plans are currently underway to obtain and release additional elk to bolster the herd and bring the number released closer to the Agency’s original objective.

Where did the elk come from that were released into Tennessee?
The subspecies of elk that once roamed in Tennessee (Cervus elaphus canadensis) are extinct but a closely related subspecies of elk (Cervus elaphus manitobensis) were released into Tennessee in December of 2000. The initial elk released came from Elk Island National Park (EINP) in Alberta, Canada. The EINP elk herd is closely monitored for potential health problems and is considered one of the best sources of wild disease free elk. Another source for elk was from the Elk and Bison Enclosure at Land Between the Lakes, a herd that also originated from EINP.

What was the sex and age composition of elk released into Tennessee?
For each release approximately 75% of the elk were cows and 25% were bulls.   For the safety of the animals the bulls had their antlers removed prior to transporting them to Tennessee and mature bulls were transported apart from the rest of the animals.   A portion of the elk released were calves which were transported with their mothers.   It is almost assured that many of the mature cows were also pregnant upon release.

How large an area is the Tennessee elk restoration zone?
The elk restoration project calls for elk to be released in a 670,000 acre restoration zone located in Scott, Morgan, Campbell, Anderson and Claiborne counties, with the center of the zone being the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area.   Elk that wander outside of the restoration zone will be captured and moved back into the restoration zone if possible or may be destroyed if capture is not possible.

Why remove elk that wander out of the restoration zone?
Elk have the potential to cause crop and property damage if they occur in areas that have large amounts of row crops and/or have large numbers of people.   The restoration zone was selected because it contains few farm crops and few people and has habitat that is suitable for supporting an elk herd.   Areas outside of the zone may be incompatible to both people and elk so it is imperative that elk remain in the restoration zone.

How far will elk travel?
It is difficult to say how far elk will travel as their movement patterns are largely determined by habitat.   In western areas elk are very mobile mostly in response to availability of suitable habitat which may be influenced by weather conditions.   In the eastern states that have elk, elk movements have been a lot less than that seen in western states.   Michigan, for example, has an elk herd of 1300-1500 elk that are maintained on 512,000 acres.   It is expected that the elk herd in Tennessee will approach this size and that the 670,000 acres of the restoration zone should contain suitable habitat to maintain this herd.   It is also expected, as has occurred in most eastern elk releases, that a few animals will wander off of the restoration area.

What will be done if some elk do cause damage in the restoration zone?
TWRA has hired a full time elk biologist whose duties will be primarily to increase the amount of habitat suitable for elk which will help reduce conflicts with landowner interests.   In addition to this duty, the biologist will be responsible for providing assistance to landowners to lessen any damage that elk may be causing to their property.   Measures such as fencing and physical harassment will be tried first to solve damage problems but if these techniques fail then the elk will be moved elsewhere if possible.   If it is not possible to move the elk and damage continues then they may have to be destroyed.

Will elk be considered for release in other areas of the state?
The present elk restoration zone was chosen since it contains a large amount of public land that has few agricultural crops and is composed of suitable habitat for elk.   Also, the area has a great deal of public support for elk and had volunteer groups such as Campbell Outdoor Recreation Association, Tennessee Conservation League, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation that provided support for the restoration project.   At some future time (and after evaluation of this initial restoration effort), the agency may evaluate the feasibility of restoration in other areas.   However, no specific plans exist at this time to restore elk in other areas.

How big of a population will be established in the elk release zone?
It is hoped that the current population of elk will expand to a population of 1400 to 2000 that should be obtainable over the next 30 years.

Will elk ever again be hunted in Tennessee? 
As the elk population grows  Elk will be hunting via a Quota System.

Who is paying for reintroducing elk into Tennessee?
The budget for the elk reintroduction project is roughly $300,000 per year with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) providing approximately 50% of the funding.  TWRA, the University of Tennessee, and other groups will provide the remainder.

Where can people see these newly released elk in Tennessee?
All elk released were ear tagged and fitted with radio collars so that their movements can be tracked. An observation tower has been constructed on Hatfield Knob at the Sundquist Unit of the North Cumberland WMA.

Will elk bring diseases to other Tennessee wildlife or to domestic livestock and pets?
All elk brought into Tennessee for release go through strict disease testing prior to release.   This testing is much more thorough than that required for bringing captive elk into Tennessee.   Also, the elk brought into Tennessee will come from areas where health surveillance has been ongoing for several years with no history of significant disease.   All of these precautions will greatly minimize the risk of any diseases being introduced into the state.

What other eastern states have resident wild elk herds?
Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Kentucky have resident elk and several other eastern states are looking into the possibility of also reintroducing elk.