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An elk prancing through the grass

Rogue Elk Wanders from the Smoky Mountains to South Carolina

Although they were once native to the state, elk haven’t roamed free in South Carolina for nearly 300 years. That is, until Clark came along. About a year ago, a bull elk from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park made headlines when he crossed into South Carolina and started visiting local neighborhoods. Eventually, the rogue elk, known as Clark, was captured by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and relocated to Charles Towne Landing, a nature center in Charleston.

Here in the Smokies, we’ve been closely following Clark’s adventures in South Carolina. After all, he’s still a local boy, even if he did run off to the big city! The Knoxville-based news station WBIR recently caught up with Clark in Charleston to find out what he’s been up to.

Clark Escapes from the Smoky Mountains

Before he set off on his own, Clark was likely one of the elk that lived in Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Comprised of around 200 elk, this herd was formed when scientists reintroduced the species to the area in 2001. Elk were once native to the Smokies, but hunting and habitat loss drove them to local extinction in the 1800s.

So, what convinced Clark to leave his home in the national park? While we don’t know for sure, experts suspect that he was forced out of the herd by older and more aggressive bulls. With few prospects in the Smoky Mountains, Clark headed south in search of greener pastures.

An elk relaxing in someone's backyard.Clark’s Adventures in Upstate South Carolina

Clark’s travels brought him to Upstate South Carolina where he, unsurprisingly, attracted lots of attention. The 500-pound elk developed a habit of wandering into people’s backyards in search of food and companionship. Cydney Phillips, a resident of Oconee County, told The State newspaper that Clark would repeatedly visit her yard to play with her neighbor’s pet donkey! According to Cydney, “They would just play around in the field like a couple of puppies…He was a majestic being.”

Ultimately, Clark’s freewheeling antics in the Upcountry came to an end when he was shot with a tranquilizer dart by biologists working for the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Although Clark never hurt anyone in his travels, as a wild bull elk, he had the potential to inadvertently cause serious damage to people who may approach him.

An elk grazing in the grass.A New Home in the Lowcountry

During his time on the lam, Clark lost his fear of people, which meant that it was unsafe for him to return to the wild. So, instead of being sent back to the Smoky Mountains, Clark was given a new home at the Charles Towne Landing nature center where he lives in a large open area that is surrounded by a fence.

Although the residents of Upstate South Carolina had taken to calling him Prancer (because he reminded them of Santa’s reindeer), the team at Charles Towne Landing dubbed him Clark, in honor of the noted explorer William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame). There is no question that our intrepid young elk has the heart of an explorer!

Today, Clark lives a happy life in the Lowcountry. He has adjusted well to his new environment, growing a full rack of antlers, gaining weight, and eating lots of grass, grains, figs, dates, and apples. Clark isn’t lonely either, as he has a small herd of buffalo to keep him company.

A herd of elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.See Elk in the Smoky Mountains

While Clark has retired to Charleston, there are still plenty of other elk to be seen in the Smoky Mountains! As mentioned above, the national park’s elk live in Cataloochee Valley, which is a popular day trip destination for vacationers staying in Gatlinburg. Elk are typically most active in the early morning and late evening. The park mandates that visitors stay at least 150 feet away from wildlife at all times, so binoculars and telephoto lenses are great tools for elk viewing. For more information, check out our complete guide to safely viewing elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!