A young, displaced elk that wandered across state lines and settled down in the Upstate has been captured and relocated to a state nature center near Charleston, where it will eventually go on public display.
The 500-pound Rocky Mountain bull elk, a rarity in South Carolina, became a viral sensation after being seen at Camp McCall, a S.C. Baptist Convention camp on U.S. 178 in Pickens County, in late October. After the sighting, pictures, videos and stories suddenly appeared on social media, celebrating the rare appearance.
The young elk, named “Rocky” by some Upstate residents, was the first of its kind to come to South Carolina since 1737.
Elk were present in the Carolinas and other southeastern states in the 1600s, but overhunting and habitat loss led to their disappearance in the 1700s. Then, in 2001 and 2002, 52 Manitoban elk were brought from eastern Canada to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina, where the herd has grown to 150 animals.
Biologists believe Rocky was part of the North Carolina herd and ventured into Pickens County in search of a female after being pushed out by a dominant bull.
In November, the elk was seen in numerous locations around Pickens County, allowing residents to come close enough to offer food and pet him. Rocky then appeared on White Horse Road in Greenville, where DNR had to rescue him from a potentially deadly encounter with the area’s afternoon traffic.
Biologists relocated the elk to the mountains of Oconee County, hoping he’d return to his North Carolina herd. But Rocky refused to leave and biologists had to shoot him with a tranquilizer dart on Dec. 16 in a neighborhood not far from Devils Fork State Park in Oconee County, according to a news release.
DNR was left with a tough dilemma: Rocky had to be euthanized or relocated.
“This elk is a wild animal and not domesticated,” DNR biologist Tammy Wactor said in a news release. “It has become accustomed to people, so it will allow people to approach it, but it is unpredictable, and this behavior can create dangerous situations.”
When Rocky refused to leave Oconee County in December, he began hanging out in a pasture in a community near Lake Jocassee, where he quickly became friends with a donkey. And despite several warnings from officials, locals continued to approach and feed him.
Elk are cousins to deer but far larger, typically standing as tall as 9 feet and weighing up to 700 pounds. They are also more imposing, approaching people who come near, curious for food, as well as head-butting or rearing up on its hind legs wanting to play.
However, as bulls become adults, they become territorial and more aggressive and have been known to charge, swinging their antlers if they feel threatened or challenged. There are documented cases of fatal elk encounters.
Prior to Rocky’s transfer, he was becoming more aggressive and needed to be relocated, Wactor said. Now, the celebrity elk is a permanent resident at the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism’s Charles Towne Landing Historic Site, a nature center near Charleston that houses and displays various animals that once inhabited the Carolinas during the colonial period.
But it could be a while before the public gets to look at Rocky.
Park officials plan to keep him quarantined for a minimum of 30 days in a separate enclosure to ensure he’s not diseased. Once he’s cleared by a vet, Rocky will join the Animal Forest, a fenced enclosure that currently holds three forest bison and a large group of wild turkeys on two acres of forestland, according to park manager Rob Powell.
He added that Rocky “is right at home” so far.
Wild elk can live up to 15 years, eating up to 35 pounds of grass per day, competing with other males to win a mate and eventually joining a herd before winter. But they can live longer in captivity.
Charles Towne Landing Historic Site constructed its Animal Forest in 1983, and has housed two Rocky Mountain elk since then. One of the elk lived more than 20 years at the park then died of old age in 2014, Powell said.
How Rocky will handle the Lowcountry heat is unknown for the most part. But officials believe he’ll be just fine. “Elk can handle all kinds of weather,” Powell said. “Elk can live in coastal areas and high up in the mountains. They’re tough animals.”
He also said that the nature center takes several precautions to prevent its animals from overheating in the summer months. Officials put self-filling water troughs in animal enclosures to prevent dehydration and set up misters and sprinklers to cool animals off should they overheat.