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Elk spotted in South Carolina for the first time since the 1700s

Conservationists are warning observers to stay back from the elk, which could swing its antlers at anyone that gets too close. 

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    A tule elk grazes on a hillside in Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif. in 2015. For the first time since the 1700s, an elk has been spotted in South Carolina.
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South Carolina’s newest social media star is young, friendly, and could weigh up to 700 pounds.

It’s a bull elk that likely wandered from North Carolina across state lines, the first time an elk has been spotted in the woodlands of South Carolina in more than 200 years. But wildlife biologists are warning the public not to be fooled by the bull’s friendliness, after pictures surfaced online of residents near it and feeding it.

This is another reminder by conservationists that wild animals are, in fact, wild, and that they must be regarded with caution for their safety and yours.

“People get a false sense of security because elk don’t mind being approached,” Justin McVey, a wildlife biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, told The Greenville News. “But they are still wild animals and can be very dangerous. All it would take is for that elk to swing its antlers and it could really hurt somebody.”

After the first official sighting of the elk on Friday, pictures have appeared of the animal on Facebook and online.

But residents have a reason to be excited. Elk disappeared from South Carolina in 1737, part of the eventual extinction of the Eastern elk. The animal’s meat was tasty, its hide and fur valuable, and its demeanor bold (at least compared to the bison and white-tailed deer), according to American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization.

After more than 200 years, a different species of elk was brought from eastern Canada to the Smoky Mountains in nearby North Carolina. The Manitoban elk herd steadily grew from 52 when it was first introduced in 2001 and 2002 to a at least 140 animals in the park in 2014. As the herd grew, South Carolinians expected elk would eventually wander onto its side of the border.  

In preparation for these sightings, the state legislature passed a law in 2007 that banned elk from being hunted, according to a report that year from The Greenville News. Over the years, there have been other reports of elk sightings in the small mountains of South Carolina, but they have been unconfirmed until now.

Biologists and outdoor enthusiasts suspect the elk wandered from a herd in the park, after dominant males kicked it out. The bull is likely looking for a cow, which could bring it back to North Carolina. 

For now, though, officials have continued to warn residents to take notice and drive slowly.

Other conservationists have issued similar warnings in the past, after people have gone out of their way to snap a photo with a wild animal, sometimes injuring themselves or the animal in the process. In Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, a woman was gouged by a bison after she and her daughter attempted to take a selfie about six yards from a herd. The mother was the fifth person to be injured in a bison attack that year.

“There’s this general phenomenon where we raise the bar for ourselves of what would be a fun selfie to take and share with others,” associate professor of psychology Zlatan Krizan, Iowa State University, told LiveScience in July 2015 after the woman was injured. “Nobody wants to be outdone.”

Wild-animal selfies can also be dangerous for animals, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warning in May for seal observers to stay back from new pups.

But Carolina officials have taken a different approach – warning the animals, not the people. Joe Yarkovich, a wildlife biologist for Cataloochee Valley, has shown elk in the Smokies that humans are to be avoided, according to American Forests. He shoots pepper foam at problematic, over friendly elk to teach them there’s no such thing as a free lunch. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.  

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