In my view, the Great Smoky Mountains absolutely made the right decision. It appears that many commentators failed to read this key passage in the park's posting:
Between September and last week, park biologists aggressively hazed this elk 28 times to discourage it from approaching the road and visitors. They captured, sedated, tagged, and re-released it on site. This technique has proven to be much more successful than relocation because it causes the animal to associate the place and people with an unpleasant experience. The elk did not respond to attempts by biologists to change its behavior. The behavior that it learned from park visitors who had given it food had been too strongly ingrained.I think it's pretty obvious that Great Smoky Mountain officials did everything they could to keep this elk alive. Pointing the finger at the park in this incident is completely misdirected. Some have also placed blame on the photographer that sparred with the spike elk. From my point of view there's no evidence that he did anything to encourage the elk to "misbehave" - at least from the video footage that's been made public. The real question people should be asking is why no one came to the photographer's aid? There was at least one person in a car behind the photographer, as well as the videographer, that could've chased that elk away, or at least distracted him. That photographer was literally one second away from having an antler sever his jugular vein.
By initiating physical contact with a visitor, the elk displayed an unacceptable risk to human safety. After becoming food conditioned, the elk did not respond to any attempts to keep it out of the area and away from humans. When wildlife exhibits this behavior it often escalates to more aggressive behavior creating a dangerous situation for visitors.
I just finished reading a book called Shattered Air. It's an account of a horrific thunderstorm that passed through Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in 1985, which killed 3 people and injured 3 others as a result of lightning strikes. Although the park feared that the family of one of those victims was going to sue Yosemite, the family decided not to given the culpability of the hikers involved in this particular situation. However, the book does state that plaintiffs won damages totaling $1.7 million when lightning strikes killed one person and injured another on Mt. Whitney in 1990. They won because the park failed to install warning signs that hikers could be endangered by lightning.
That case isn't an outlier. An Idaho family is currently suing the U.S. Forest Service for more than $1 million after a dead tree fell and injured their son while camping in Boise National Forest. Also, several victims from the 2012 Hantavirus outbreak in Yosemite are suing that park. There are many other examples.
Clearly, had that elk injured or killed someone there's a very strong chance that the Great Smoky Mountains would've been held liable in a court of law.
For those who still think that the elk should've been saved, let me ask this question: What would your thoughts be if that same elk trampled, gored or attacked an innocent hiker, camper or child - especially if it was a family member, or maybe even you? I bet most of those expressing outrage today would be searching Google for a lawyer the very next day.
If you really want to stop needless wildlife deaths I would encourage people to speak up when they see park visitors acting inappropriately around wildlife. You could probably come across hundreds of examples in Cades Cove on almost any day.
In case you missed the now famous video, here it is:
Hiking in the Smokies