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Domestic Elk a Doable TN Livestock Option

Great grazing here in the Upper Cumberland country, but good fencing needed

When people think of elk, what probably comes to mind is the American West, and in particular, the Rocky Mountains.

But elk, which are one of the largest native land animals in North America, were in fact historically abundant throughout much of the Eastern United States. Prior to their reintroduction in small enclaves by state and federal wildlife managers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, wild elk hadn’t roamed Tennessee’s woods in great numbers since well before the middle of the 19th Century.

“Early records indicated that elk were abundant in the state prior to being settled by European explorers and colonists,” says the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s informational web page on elk restoration. “As these settlers moved westward the elk population declined.”

“The last historical record of an elk being sighted in Tennessee was in 1865 when one was reported to be killed in Obion County,” according to the agency. There was not “one specific reason” for the depletion of the animals, although “over-exploitation by man” and “habitat destruction” played significant roles in their demise.

Self-sustaining herds of wild elk in Tennessee exist today only in a few remote tracts, like Land Between the Lakes, Smoky Mountain National Park and the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area in Campbell County.

But even though elk have had a pretty rough couple of centuries in the Southeastern United States, rearing them in captivity on marginal farm and ranch land is both feasible and potentially quite lucrative.

At least two ranchers in Middle Tennessee are currently raising elk, and have been for years.

Dow Armistead runs a small herd of elk — along with sitka and fallow deer — on his property near the Caney Fork River in eastern Smith County, where his family has owned land in the area for generations — “I’d say 100 years or better,” he told the Center Hill Sun.

“I’d love to see more people doing this,” Armistead said of raising elk. “They’re not the easiest things in the world to take care of, but they aren’t the hardest either.”

With a little general knowledge of raising traditional livestock added to a little basic research, anyone can probably figure it out without much difficulty, Armistead said. He’s also happy to talk to people about the basics, and doesn’t mind people pulling off the road to admire his animals along St. Mary’s/Stonewall Club Road just west of the Opossum Road turnoff.

There’s certainly money to be made selling the the animals for genetics, meat and antlers, said Armistead — who works a regular job in commercial construction. But his primary motivating interest is simply in observing their grace and grandeur.

“A lot of times I come here to feed them and end up just sitting or leaning up against the fence and watching them for a while,” Armistead said.

Installing and maintaining the eight-foot-high fencing to keep the animals penned in is the most costly and labor-intensive element of the operation, he noted. Armistead’s farm consists of about 60 acres of hilly forest and scrubland, and the elk meander about on a little more than half of it.

Not Too Tame

Often when they see him, Armistead’s elk will amble down and see what he’s up to — and often there’s a snack in it for them when they do. Armistead supplements their grass diet with an occasional bucket of grain and provides them additional hay in the winter.

Armistead said he doesn’t like them getting affectionate with people, though. Even unintentionally, a several-hundred pound animal can do serious damage to the human body in short order. That’s especially true of a mature bull that’s wearing a massive, dagger-pronged antler rack.

“They can be dangerous if they get too friendly,” said Armistead.

Herb Fritch owns Two Feathers Elk and Bison Ranch in Hickman County, where he runs about 300 elk on 400 acres. Fritch has been raising elk, buffalo and other somewhat unusual livestock since the late 1990s. His operation was formerly near McMinnville, and before that he raised exotic animals near the Caney Fork River along Smith Fork Creek.

The most lucrative aspect of raising elk in the United States is the market in “trophy antler genetics, buying-and-selling semen from the champion bulls,” Fritch said.

But as with Armistead, Fritch said just having the opportunity to regularly behold and appreciate the singular majesty of an elk herd is for him what offers the deepest sense of personal fulfillment — more than the economics of the enterprise.

“I love just looking at these magnificent animals as much as anything,” said Fritch, a retired Nashville health-care industry entrepreneur. But being the largest elk breeder in Tennessee, “at some point you have to sell something somewhere,” he added.

Call of the Wild

Autumn is an especially rewarding time to own elk, which are noted for the eerie, hollow-sounding high-pitched whistle, or “bugling.”

In an effort to trumpet their desirability to available females within earshot, bulls give vent to the otherworldly whine during rutting season. Bugling also serves to warn away male interlopers — or let them know a fight awaits if they plan to stick around.

Elk are in fact quite vocal beyond just their distinct bugling. They’re actually “among the noisiest ungulates, communicating danger quickly and identifying each other by sound,” according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Newborn calves will bleat out shrill squeals and squalls that are individually recognized by their mothers, and adult males and females alike utter a variety of barks, chirps, mews, pips, grunts and snorts that make up an elaborate lexicon of audible elk talk.

“Elk also use body language. For example, an elk displays dominance by raising its head high,” according to RMEF.

Southern Things to Think About

Keeping domestic elk in the South “does have its challenges,” Fritch said. “They have heavy coats, so they can deal with the cold weather — but the heat can be an issue.”

It’s essential to keep a lot of shade available in their pasture ranges, he said. Armistead said his “really like to roll around in the mud during the warmer months.”

Likewise, parasites can be an issue of greater concern here than in northern climes because winter temperatures often don’t drop low enough for long enough to naturally disrupt the lifecycle of dangerous parasites.

“You really have to pay attention to parasites down here,” Fritch said. “The other issue you have to be aware of is ticks. It can get to the point of having to bring an animal down if you don’t stay on top of it.”

“There is a bit of a learning curve,” he said. “The main two things you have to deal with to get started is the fencing and the handling facilities to work the animals.”

If you have multiple bulls pastured together, bulls will fight during the rut. “That is not good – you can lose animals that way,” he said. So it’s necessary to either separate the bulls or removed their antlers at the end of the summer.

“Beyond that, the rest of it is not too different than keeping dairy cattle,” said Fritch. “There are certain nutritional requirements, but that is not to hard to learn and get a handle on.”

The North American Breeders Association maintains a useful FAQ page for anyone interested in learning more about raising domestic elk.

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Windows of Recreation Opportunities

Officials hope new state natural area will attract more tourist dollars to region

The Window Cliffs Natural Area in Putnam County is now open for the business of public recreation.

State park officials, local politicians, conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts gathered for a commencement celebration and an inaugural round of guided hikes at the 275-acre scenic refuge on April 7.

The opening of the area was also scheduled to highlight and coincided with this year’s State Natural Areas Spring Celebration Week, which is used to raise public awareness about Tennessee’s 85 state-owned natural areas.

The state’s Natural Areas Program “seeks to include adequate representation of all natural communities that make up Tennessee’s natural landscape, and provide long-term protection for Tennessee’s rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal life,” according to the Department of Environment and Conservation.

“I can really think of no way to better honor this week than the opening of Window Cliffs State Natural Area,” Roger McCoy, director of TDEC’s Division of Natural Areas, told the crowd of 100 or so people gathered for the kickoff event. “This is a big deal.”

The area’s plant diversity and craggy beauty are sure to entice visitors to Window Cliffs, said McCoy. “We’ve got mature forests, the free-flowing Cane Creek, and an amazing geologic formation that really is like no other in the state.”

The Window Cliffs trailhead is located about seven miles south of Exit 280 on I-40, at 8400 Old Cane Creek Rd in Baxter. It’s also just a couple miles from Burgess Falls State Park. The Window Cliffs trail includes a total of 20 bridgeless stream crossings and some pretty steep climbs, so don’t expect to have dry feet or fresh legs by the end of the day.

Bill Summers, head ranger at Burgess Falls State Park and Window Cliffs State natural Area

“Burgess Falls offers a relative short, scenic hike, and Window Cliffs is a little bit more of a challenging hike, which will be more rewarding to some visitors,” said Bill Summers, the chief state park ranger in charge of both areas. “I truly believe that both will compliment each other in what they offer to the public, and what they protect for future generations.”

Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Bureau of Parks, said Gov. Bill Haslam has sought to place a “special focus on rural economic development,” and the opening of Window Cliffs is aligned with that priority.

Like with the opening of Cummins Falls State Park north of Exit 280, the Haslam administration’s parks and recreation planners believe taking a “businesslike approach” to designating and promoting exciting new outdoor-activity destinations will enhance local economies.

“A lot of communities, particularly here in the Upper Cumberland, are still struggling in some ways,” said Hill. “What Tennessee state parks can bring to that is what is called ‘place-based economic development.’ When we have beautiful landscapes like we do here in the Upper Cumberland, we have been able to identify places that will add a lot in terms of value to local economic development with tourism and job growth, as well as an opportunity for healthy lifestyles.”

This is the 46th year of Tennessee’s Natural Areas Program,” and the 80th year of the state park system.

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Cookeville Library Hosting Homeschool Planning Forum

The Putnam County Public Library in Cookeville is hosting a roundtable meet-up for regional homeschooling families on Tuesday, March 28 at 10 a.m.

The forum’s purpose is both to introduce homeschool families to one another as well as put them in contact with library staff. The intention is to “discuss ideas, challenges, and how the library can support home learning.”

The program isn’t limited to just Cookeville and Putnam County families. “It’s open to everybody — whoever wants to come,” said Chelsea Gifford, a children’s librarian who is organizing the event.

Parents who’re thinking about homeschooling but haven’t yet committed are invited to attend as well.

More and more homeschool families are using library resources, and they tend to possess “various levels of experience and expertise” with instruction and curriculum development, said Gifford.

The meet-up event is intended to “encourage idea-sharing to see how the library can improve to help them — and how they can better network with one another through their own homeschooling efforts,” she said.

The Putnam County Library hopes homeschool families utilize library resources in the most advantageous ways possible, and the staff are looking for input on how best they can help facilitate in that regard, she added.

“We feel like the library is a natural meeting place for homeschool families where they can get materials for their curriculum,” said Gifford. “We have the ability to offer them extra programs and other things for what they are already doing at home.”

You can contact Ms. Gifford at chelseagifford@pclibrary.org, or call the library at 931-526-2416 to let them know you’re interested in attending or want to know more about the event. The library is located at 50 East Broad Street.

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New State Natural Area Opening in April

Window Cliffs area offers yet another scenic attraction to region

Outdoor enthusiasts will soon have another remarkable Upper Cumberland landform to behold and appreciate.

Located in Putnam County — southwest of Cookeville and a bit north-northwest of Burgess Falls — the newly designated Window Cliffs State Natural Area is scheduled to open to the public Friday, April 7.

The trailhead address is 8400 Old Cane Creek Rd., Baxter.

The 275-acre haven of Highland Rim splendor promises yet another splendid hiking getaway for a region already brimming with robust outdoor recreation opportunities.

“It is a spectacular area in terms of scenery,” said state naturalist Randy Hedgepath, who leads tours and directs nature-education programs on public lands around Tennessee.

“You have a bluff that separates the upstream and downstream parts of the creek there,” Hedgepath said. “The bluff has eroded from both sides causing an opening to develop — hence the name ‘Window Cliffs.’ It is also a beautiful area of native forests. The stream that runs through the area and the rock formations are really pretty.”

The eight-mile trail at Window Cliffs — which crosses Cane Creek a number of times within the area’s boundaries — will supply visitors with ample opportunity for birdwatching, flower-gazing, woods wandering, animal observing and vista viewing.

The gemstone of the natural area of course is the age-hewn limestone pinnacle hemmed in by an oxbow bend along Cane Creek, which empties into Center Hill Lake a couple miles downstream.

“At the narrowest point, the cliff is only about 50 yards wide at the base with the clifftops just a few feet wide,” according to a survey-description by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks and natural areas. “However, the stream distance separating the two cliff-faces is about 0.8 mile. The narrow cliffs have resulted from erosion and natural bridges or ‘windows’ appear within them.”

The area will compliment Burgess Falls in superb fashion, said state park manager Bill Summers. Like Burgess Falls, Window Cliffs will be a day-use area only.

Whereas the foot trail above Burgess Falls is relatively easy and short, the trek from trailhead to the Window Cliffs is a “fairly strenuous” four miles each way, said Summers.

“You start the hike on the Highland Rim, then descend into the Central Basin, then back up onto the Highland Rim,” he said. “We are rating it strenuous because of the elevation change and the nine creek crossings.”

“There’s a steep ascent toward the top of the Window Cliffs,” he added.

Summers does not doubt that the area will draw crowds, though — both because of the landscape and “a rare botanical area along the cliffs and on top of the cliffs,” he said.

The area is special for “the uniqueness of the scenery and rarity of the plant species,” said Summers, who has headed ranger operations at Burgess Falls State Park since 2004.

Plans have been in the works for the state to acquire the area for many years, but didn’t come to fruition until the last three years, with the help of the Land Trust of Tennessee, he said.

Summers noted that visitors to the area won’t be allowed to climb the distinctive rock formations due both to safety and conservation concerns. “The window cliffs are limestone, and the limestone is very fragile. Just by touching it it falls apart,” he said. “The trail doesn’t go through the windows because the rock will fall apart and the trail would become very unstable.”

A grand opening ceremony for the Window Cliffs State Natural Area is tentatively scheduled for April 7.

Emily Parish, who works for the nonprofit Land Trust, describes the limestone crags and window-arch as “a one-of-a-kind thing.”

“As you’re hiking along it almost feels like they appear out of nowhere,” she said. “It is a nice surprise when you get to the end when you see those cliffs. It will just be a really pretty place for people to visit.”

Parish said the Land Trust is just recently putting the finishing touches on the property purchases to complete the area. She noted that locals have been visiting the cliffs for years, despite it being private property.

“A lot of people have been going there for a long time, perhaps not legally,” she said. “But now they will be able to go see it without trespassing.”