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Wednesday, 08 February 2006 00:00

Elk negotiations continue

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Dick Hamilton, director of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Biologists with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park want to increase the elk herd in Cataloochee by bringing in a new batch of elk from Kentucky.

 

But the state currently has a ban on importing elk and deer from other states due to a contagious and fatal disease. Chronic wasting disease has infected deer species in 13 states but so far spared North Carolina.

“It’s nothing to play roulette with,” Hamilton said. “We are entrusted with the responsibility to protect the native deer herd.”

Representatives of the park and wildlife commission met in Asheville in January to discuss the park’s request. The two parties are planning another meeting this month.

“We learned a lot about their issues, and they learned a lot about our concerns,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said he would like the park to explore other solutions to bolstering its elk population. He said the potentially risky move of importing more elk should be a last resort.

Fro example, black bears and other predators are killing more than half of the newborn elk.

“They have black bear that are keyed in on the elk calves and coyote are learning how to take the elk calves,” Hamilton.

Elk are growing more savvy toward their predators, but so are the bears. Elk have gotten better at hiding their newborns, but meanwhile, the bears have learned the behavior of elk mothers. A bear was observed this year tracking a mother elk back to her newborn’s hiding spot when she goes to nurse.

The park has let nature take its course with the elk so far. Park rangers have not attempted to stop bears from preying on the elk. The National Park Service largely follows a hands-off policy in the parks, interfering as little as possible with natural processes.

“They can bend their rules in the interest of an experimental project to bring back a historical species,” Hamilton suggested.

Park rangers do step in when the goal is restoring natural processes, however. The park has killed non-native trout species in streams to help the population of native brook trout. The park service shoots wild hogs, a non-native species that wreaks havoc with its hooves on rare plant communities and gobbles up food needed by deer. The park is also using chemical treatments to save native hemlocks from an exotic insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid

Bob Miller, spokesperson for the park, said the park is considering steps to protect the elk from predators during calving season this year.

“We can control predator dynamics to a degree,” Miller said. “Re-establishment of a extirpated species is a valid resource management goal.”

One option is trapping and relocating predator bears to another part of the park during calving season. Most newborns have been preyed on within days of being born.

“It would take the bears six weeks to make their way back, and by the time they do the calves are up and running around,” Miller said.

Hamilton has asked the park to draft a report on the elk project’s goals.

“We worked up a population model (exploring what are the shortcomings with our existing herd,” Miller said.

Hamilton also suggested that the park could expand the fields of Cataloochee Valley, possibly through controlled burns of the surrounding forest.

“You can’t just keep piling elk in Cataloochee pastures,” Hamilton said. “As you concentrate them, you concentrate predation.”


WNC loves elk

Elk were hunted to extinction in this part of the country in the 1800s. Since the park reintroduced 50 elk into the park five years ago, the elk have won the hearts of Western North Carolina residents and tourists alike.

Without additional elk, the future of the elk herd in Cataloochee is uncertain, however, according to park biologists. The population of elk has not grown, but remained constant, with a little over 50 elk today.

“The interest in the elk out there is phenomenal. People really love them,” said Jim Blyth of Maggie Valley, a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which was integral in funding the elk reintroduction. “I would certainly like to see the additional elk brought into the park, especially if we could get some more cows in here. I think it would help the overall population.”

A simple case of bad luck has dealt one of the most hefty blows to the elk. The majority of newborns have been male — with male elk now outnumbering females around two to one.

The park hopes to get 30 female elk from a herd in Kentucky at a preserve known as Land Between the Lakes. The park hopes to get the elk by January 2007 if the N.C. Wildlife Commission agrees.

Currently, there is no way to test live animals for chronic wasting disease. University researchers are developing a test for live animals.

“Whether they will be ready for prime time this year, the jury is still out,” Miller said.

Instead, the park could facilitate testing of elk that die in the Kentucky herd between now and the hoped-for release in 2007. Chronic wasting disease has turned up as close as West Virginia.

“We aren’t expecting them to take chances,” Miller said of the Wildlife Commission.

So far, the park has released 52 elk — one batch of 25 from Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes in 2001 and one batch of 27 from Canada’s Elk Island National Park in 2002. Today, the park has 50 adult elk and five calves.

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