CHARLESTON, S.C. — Clark the wandering Upstate elk has made itself at home in Charleston, a region not regularly visited by the large animals.
A year after the quarter-ton visitor was captured by state wildlife officers and introduced to the animal forest at Charles Towne Landing, he has buddied up with the bison herd.
They sit together and sleep together. When it’s feeding time, the elk will herd the four buffalo to the feeder ahead of him.
Now all he needs is a mate.
He means it. He just grew antlers and went into an aggressive rut, forcing the need for a temporary fence separating him from the bison. He’ll go back when he drops his antlers, expected in April.
Elk are the massive migrating animals loosely related to deer but far larger and more imposing. They can stand as tall as 9 feet counting a fully grown rack of antlers. Although generally placid foragers they can charge at times, swinging those antlers if they feel threatened or challenged.
That aggressiveness among rutting bull elk might have drawn or driven the now 4-year-old bull from one of the herds in the high North Carolina mountains into the Upstate territory of South Carolina, where he became the first confirmed wild elk in the state in two centuries.
He showed up in a golf course community near Lake Jocassee. Still a juvenile, he approached anyone who came near, curious for food, head-butting and rearing up on his hind legs wanting to play.
S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologists tried to turn the animal away from the community and relocated him to a wilderness area. But he came back.
Despite warnings from DNR, people kept wanting to get close and hand feed. That can be dangerous with a full-grown elk.
When this one went into rut — an aggressive state seen in males in which they rub their antlers on trees, fight or wallow in the dust or muck — at Charles Towne Landing, he butted a Christmas tree around the enclosure until he tore it to shreds.
Because of the risk to the community, DNR had little choice but to tranquilize the elk and bring him to the state park in West Ashley, a region of Charleston, which also exhibits a panther, black bear, bald eagle, otters, wild turkey and other native creatures.
He since has become a star. People show up at the ticket office asking where to find the 5-acre enclosure that holds him.
“They come specifically for him,” said Rob Powell, park manager. “They have followed the story.”
Park staff would like to get the elk a mate. They named him “Clark” after William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark “wandering” expedition across the United States. They held off on calling him Lewis so they could name a subsequent female Lois, said Jillian Davis, animal forest curator.
Staff is working with DNR to see what can be done, but current South Carolina law doesn’t allow elk to be moved across state lines because of concerns that Chronic Wasting Disease could get into the deer herd here. The chance is remote that a female will wander into the state from the herd in the high North Carolina mountains.
“If we can get one, we will,” Powell said.