Volunteers who rove Cataloochee Valley sharing wildlife viewing etiquette with elk watchers were honored with a national accolade for exemplary service within the national parks.

The Elk Bugle Corp, which roves the elk-watching capital of Cataloochee Valley, and the Luftee Rovers, which does the same around the fields of Oconaluftee, received the Regional Hartzog Award for Outstanding National Park Volunteer Group.

The 70 volunteers who serve as elk rovers dedicated over 2,400 hours of service in 2020 by providing safe elk viewing tips to visitors and helping ensure that elk are not disturbed by viewing activities.

The popularity of elk viewing has grown exponentially since the elk were reintroduced to the park 20 years ago in Cataloochee. Visitor viewing now presents management challenges due to congestion, behavior of visitors and disturbance to the elk — namely visitors trying to get too close.

In spite of extreme rises in visitation during the pandemic, these volunteers remained on duty day after day to ensure the long term protection of the elk.

“This work has often been in inclement weather, or with overwhelming crowds, and the volunteers eagerly respond by arriving early and leaving late,” said Wildlife Biologist Joe Yarkovich, a.k.a. The Elk Guy. “Through it all, their passion to help protect the wildlife of the Great Smoky Mountains shines through as an example for all of us to follow when helping the public in the most visited national park in the country.”

The George and Helen Hartzog Awards Program for Outstanding Volunteers is a highly competitive program that recognizes above-and-beyond contributions made by volunteers at national parks across the country. Nearly 250,000 volunteers across the nation donate their time, skills and talents to the national parks each year — including about 2,000 volunteers in the Smokies.

Smokies volunteers provide valuable visitor information, remove litter, eradicate invasive plant species, assist with cultural demonstrations, participate in special events, provide practical support for visitors along roads and trails, assist with data collection, maintain backcountry campsites, help biologists monitor wildlife populations and work as campground hosts. To become a park volunteer, visit www.nps.gov/grsm/getinvolved/volunteer.htm.

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