CHEROKEE, N.C. - The field had been mowed for hay, giving it the appearance of a freshly cut lawn. Across this wide-open expanse of green, a small elk herd slowly made its way toward the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. While the yearling calves romped in the cool, early morning air, a young bull with spike antlers made amorous overtures to the female members of the herd.
In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the elk rutting season is off to an early start. And while the bulk of the park's herd - an estimated 150 to 200 animals - still remains in Cataloochee Valley at the southeastern end of the park, a group of about 20 elk has taken up residence near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center just inside the park near Cherokee, N.C.
The Oconaluftee herd dates back to 2002 when a cow [tag No. 5] left Cataloochee and crossed Balsam Mountain to reach the fields that adjoin the visitor center.
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