A winding stretch of road in western portions of North Carolina is safer for both elk and human alike thanks to behind-the-scenes work by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and its volunteers.
“U.S. Highway 19 crossing Soco Mountain from the Jackson-Haywood County Line and the town of Maggie Valley was the most critical roadway regarding deaths of elk due to an encounter with an automobile,” said Joyce Cooper, long-time co-chair of the RMEF Great Smoky Mountains Chapter (GSMC). “This winding two-lane road down the steep mountain gives elk and the drivers a minimum amount of time to evade each other.”
After discussion with and support from fellow GSMC members and volunteers, Cooper got to work pounding the pavement. She reached out to the North Carolina Department of Transportation to check on the availability and cost of signage, and then to RMEF and the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority in search of grant funding. Both obliged.
GSMC committee members Terry Shuler and Jay Ring studied elk sighting information along the highway to help figure out where construction should take place. Crews then erected six 36-by-36-inch elk crossing signs – three facing traffic heading up the mountain and three for the opposite direction. Each of them has eight solar-powered LED lights that flash 24/7.
“I am tickled to death with them,” Cooper told Smoky Mountains News. “As a chapter, we’ve talked for several years about what we could do and what should be done to make the road safe for the animals and traveling public, and things came together this year.”
Looking back, GSMC played a key role in restoring elk to their historic range in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding region. Chapter members raised vital funding leading to the successful release of 25 elk from Kentucky in 2001 and 27 more from Alberta, Canada in 2002.
Two decades later, elk range covers several counties allowing the herd to freely, and hopefully more safely, roam.
“We hope that these signs will increase awareness of the elk in the Soco Road area and result in fewer incidents with vehicles,” said Joe Treadway, GSMC co-chair and former chair of the RMEF Board of Directors.
(Photo source: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation)