A stellar year for Cataloochee’s elk

When the first batch of 25 elk were released in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park seven years ago, it was dubbed an experiment. Park biologists hoped, but weren’t sure whether the elk would thrive.

Indeed, the early years were touch and go. While a second batch of 27 elk joined the herd the following year, a ban on importing any more elk and poor survival among newborns threatened to stagnate the herd’s numbers.

But now in its eighth year, the elk herd in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has nearly doubled, from the 52 imported elk to an estimated 95 today.

“This year’s calving season was another big success in terms of survival for the calves,” said Joe Yarkovich, Smokies elk project manager.

There were 19 confirmed elk calves born this year with one of the best track records yet —16 are still alive, for an 84 percent survival rate.

In the early years, calf survival averaged just 50 percent due almost entirely to predation by bears. The momma elk have wizened up to the bears in many ways, improving how they camouflage their newborns when they leave their babies’ side to forage and being more aggressive toward any bear seen lurking about.

Park biologists lent a helping hand as well. In 2006, the park trapped bears and temporarily relocated them elsewhere in the park during calving season. It made a huge difference, prompting a repeat performance of the trapping every year since.

The bears are trapped during the late-May to early July calving season, then radio-collared and relocated to the Twenty Mile area at the western edge of Lake Fontana.

Many of the bears eventually return to Cataloochee, but the young calves are mobile enough by then to travel safely with their mothers.

Of the three calves that died this year, Yarkovich said one appeared to die from natural causes while the other two were never found, so they could have died of natural causes or been eaten by bears or coyotes.

It’s all about the females

There was another element threatening the herd’s survival in the early years: bad luck on what should have been a 50-50 coin toss. The momma elk gave birth to far more males than females, producing a lopsided herd. Had it been lopsided in the other direction, biologists would have rejoiced, as it only takes one male elk to get a herd of female pregnant.

“Ultimately, the number of breeding females in the herd will have the greatest effect on their long-term success, so we would always like to see more females being born,” Yarkovich said.

But the odds were in the male camp. That unfortunate trend repeated itself again this year.

“If there is a downside this calving season, the sex ratio of the calves born was fairly poor from the standpoint of herd growth,” Yarkovich said.

Nonetheless, if all the females that gave birth this year do so again, and the new females do as well, the numbers look good.

“In terms of calf production there are several young cows that should give birth to their first calves next summer, so we have the potential for another record-setting year for herd expansion,” Yarkovich said.

Of the 16 calves that survived, only five are female, 10 are male, with the sex of the last one still unknown.

Every year, a few adult elk die from various causes. This year the number was five. Of these, three died of undetermined, but apparently natural, causes. Another was struck by a vehicle along Big Cove Road in Cherokee and was euthanized as a result of the injuries. The fifth, a yearling bull, was found dead in Little Cataloochee on Nov. 5, but necropsy results and disease tests on the animal have not been returned yet.

Yarkovich said he is already looking forward to next years’ mating contests among males.

“Next fall the rut should be quite a contest as we have quite a few bulls which are nearing 10 years of age, which is when they develop the largest antlers,” Yarkovich said. “So if the food supply is good we have the potential for even more spectacular racks to be seen next year. There are also a few rather aggressive younger bulls that will be gaining weight and antler mass, so competition during the 2009 rut should certainly be exciting.”

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