We built it and they came, both the elk and the people.

By Dan Hicks


A few years ago, I wrote an article about Tennessee’s first wildlife viewing tower dedicated to elk. The piece was called “If you build it they will come” and that statement has certainly become true.  Tennessee’s elk viewing area known as Hatfield Knob and located at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s Sundquist Wildlife Management Area, is being used daily by the resident elk and people that have traveled to see them.
This phenomenon did not happen by chance. Hundreds of volunteers, along with TWRA employees, have spent countless hours working to prepare a suitable habitat designed to provide everything a herd of wild elk need with the goal of keeping elk at the viewing area year around. Elk Viewing Tower
During the fall and winter of 2006, Steve Bennett, TWRA Elk Biologist, developed a user-friendly survey to be left at the elk-viewing tower and filled out by visitors. What a success. More than 600 people took the time to fill out the form and leave their thoughts after experiencing the elk in person. “We figure that only about 20 percent of the visitors bother to stop and fill out the questionnaire and the results show us the tower is being used a great deal and is really enjoyed by the visitors,” said Bennett.
As part of the original plan to release elk in the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area in 2000, the Campbell Outdoor Recreation Association (CORA) agreed to help the Agency establish an elk viewing area. Later in 2003, the TWRA dedicated the Sundquist WMA and as part of that celebration also released a group of elk from the U.S. Forest Service’s Land Between the Lakes (LBL) east of Interstate 75.


These elk had been part of the Elk and Bison Prairies at LBL and were accustomed to vehicles and people with cameras and optics running through the area. These elk were thought to be the perfect group of animals to be placed in a viewing area scenario. Eleven of the LBL elk were originally transported there from Elk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada, the source of all the animals in Tennessee’s wild elk reintroduction program.
Imagine then having a mountain top disturbed by years of strip mining available for improvement, suitable for elk habitat, and located adjacent to the property already owned by one of CORA’s most active members. Enter Terry and Jane Lewis.
“Having the Hatfield Knob location practically in our back yard made it a natural place for us to try and hold elk,” said Terry Lewis.  “We wanted to develop the Knob into a secure place with food for elk available year round and with a high probability that viewing opportunity elk would be there.
“Without that people would not come back or tell others about their experience. We can just get on a tractor at the barn and drive up the mountain and work without having to even drive on the road.”

After several years of work by Lewis, volunteers, and TWRA, the 11 Sundquist elk quickly found the first food plot consisting of 2.5 acres of oats and Austrian winter peas that had been especially planted for them. After that the race was on to greatly expand the food sources found on Hatfield Knob.
“I knew if we planted the right crops and had enough of it the area could hold elk all year and then that area would be the logical location to construct an elk viewing tower,” Terry Lewis added.
“Over the years, TWRA learned to have confidence in Lewis who was well established in conservation organizations and in his ability to farm for wildlife and just get things done,” explained Bennett. “As a successful licensed contractor and owner of a recreational business, Terry earned a chance to coordinate and construct an elk viewing tower at Hatfield Knob.”
Terry is president of the CORA organization, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Committee member, and is on the Board of Directors at the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. Terry and his wife Jane and their host of volunteers have been involved in planning and working with Bennett and TWRA Area Manager, Stan Stooksbury and his crews at Royal Blue and Sundquist Wildlife Management Areas. Viewing Tower
Together with a wildlife management plan in hand, they have planted more than 40 acres of wildlife food plots and continue to clear more acreage. In addition, during the past 12 years, the Lewis’s have established 37 wildlife food plots on their nearby property.  “This is a true testament to the partnerships and what can get done with volunteers willing to give time, money and energy. I get satisfaction knowing the public has a place where they can view our elk,” Lewis explained.
There are now 23 elk in the Hatfield Knob herd with four new calves being born there each of the last three mating seasons. Terry is already talking about expanding the capacity of the elk tower and developing more habitats for the growing elk population that make their home range right around the wildlife viewing area.
Mike Butler, Executive Director of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, has been an active supporter of the elk reintroduction program since day one. Butler and his organization have helped in funding the viewing area parking lot, the foot trail and the tower. “We are completing two educational kiosks to be placed in the parking lot area and at the half-way point along the foot trail,” said Butler. “At the half-way point, the kiosk will double as a rest stop and shelter. Lewis has already completed construction of those kiosk shelters and the educational boards will be in place soon.”
Tennessee’s elk herd has continued to grow and expand. Because of natural elk behavior and the structure of the herd, several bull elk are not contributing to the population growth. TWRA is continuing to develop the first elk hunt for five of these bull by permit tentatively in 2009.
“Establishing bull elk hunting on a limited basis should not be a detriment to the health of the future growth of the heard, according to elk experts, and the hunt is designed to raise funds for habitat enhancement and future elk releases,” Bennett stated.
To experience Tennessee’s wild elk viewing area, take the Caryville, 25W exit off of I-75 north of Knoxville. Drive through Jacksboro and after entering Lafollette, look for Highway 25W on your left near the Cross Funeral Home. Continue north on 25W approximately seven miles to the top of the mountain where the Hatfield Knob Wildlife Viewing Area signs can be seen on the left.  Pass through the gate and travel a little over three miles to a fork in the road and stay to the right and drive about a mile and a half to the parking area. Please walk quietly up the foot trail and enjoy the abundance of wildlife sights and sounds while not disturbing the elk that may just be several feet from the trail.