Just beyond the rush of traffic on Interstate 40 near the Tennessee-North Carolina line, steep hillsides and forested knolls shelter a vibrant community of wildlife.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, and other partners identified this property in the Pigeon River Gorge as a conservation priority because it provides a key corridor for elk and other animals to move in the landscape.
“This Wilkins Creek property has a unique role in connecting wildlife habitats across the landscape,” says SAHC Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese. “Unlike many tracts SAHC has protected, this one has some areas of sparse forest cover resulting from past timber harvest. There are some species, such as elk, that require such openings along with intact forest. The Wilkins Creek property falls within an important wildlife corridor in the Pigeon River Gorge and contains open areas that may provide grazing habitat for elk.”
Following the successful reintroduction of elk in Cataloochee Valley in 2001 and 2002, the elk herd has grown from the initial 52 animals to about 150 today. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association, Wildlands Network, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC Wildlife Federation, and other conservation partners have been conducting research and strategic planning focused on the survival and movement of elk, bear, and deer in the Pigeon River Gorge. They found that animals traveling in the vicinity of Cataloochee Valley and the Smokies regularly cross I-40 in search of openings where they can graze, resulting in significant animal fatalities.
The large box culvert under I-40 serves as a passageway for wildlife, enabling animals to safely reach the forest openings on the Wilkins Creek property. The land that SAHC purchased plays an important role for elk to live and move, and the property will serve as a research site on wildlife habitat crossings.
SAHC plans to own the Wilkins Creek property for the short term, managing it for habitat and working with partners to monitor the presence and movement of wildlife on the property. We hope to transfer the Wilkins Creek tract to public agency ownership in the future.
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