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Wednesday, 14 December 2005 00:00

Park considers more elk

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The North Carolina Wildlife Commission is still weighing whether to allow the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to bring more elk into the Cataloochee Valley area of the park.

Park biologists are concerned about the survival rate of the fledgling herd of about 50 elk. Their population has remained stagnant since the elk were released in 2001 and 2002. Just enough elk calves are surviving to replace the number of adult elk that die off.

Fear over the potential spread of a mysterious disease that kills elk and deer triggered a ban on transporting live deer and elk into the state, however. The park is asking the Wildlife Commission for an exception. Earlier this fall, the Wildlife Commission appeared ready to announce its decision, but was waiting until after the park had held two public hearings on the subject in late October.

Now, Commission director Dick Hamilton said a decision will be delayed until supporters of the elk can arrange a trip to Raleigh and pitch their case directly to Hamilton. Specifically, members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation asked Hamilton if he would meet with them before issuing a decision.

“There are a lot of people interested in this,” Hamilton said.

Park biologists say they would get their elk from a disease-free herd in Canada. But Hamilton has to consider the what-ifs: the slim chance that one of the elk could be carrying the fatal disease and the risk of infecting the state’s deer population. Chronic wasting disease has turned up as close as West Virginia. It is impossible to test live animals for the disease.

Hamilton said there are other solutions to boost the park’s elk herd. For example, black bears are eating more than half the baby elk born each year. Hamilton said the population of black bears in the park could be reduced or managed.

“There are also some habitat things that could help the elk,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said the park could clear more woods to create open fields preferred by the elk for grazing. The national park service typically manages nature as little as possible, however.

Regardless of the decision, Hamilton said. “We are for the elk. They are a magnificent animal.”

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