The bugle of triumph: Elk herd success spurs tourism, scientific innovation

coverAt 7:30 a.m., darkness is just barely beginning to lift from the pre-dawn fields and forest of Cataloochee Valley. Joe Yarkovich steers his National Park Service vehicle through the valley and past a herd of elk bedded down in a field just past the ranger station. A handful of cars already lines the road, their occupants standing bundled outside holding binoculars and long-lensed cameras. We pass a few more fields, empty of both elk and people, before reaching a pull-off near the Caldwell House. An impressive bull and his harem of cows are practically on the road, close enough to toss a rock at. Or, more importantly, to make a great photo. I tighten my grip on the camera.

“That’s the bull I was looking for,” says Yarkovich, a Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildlife biologist who specializes in elk. This particular elk had lost his radio collar when his neck swelled during mating season, called the rut — for that reason, Yarkovich typically replaces collars on male calves with larger ones as the animals mature.

Human interaction can be fatal to elk

coverA young male elk in Cataloochee Valley was put down by park rangers last week for repeatedly rushing and taunting visitors. 

A love of junk food led the elk to lose its leeriness of humans. Despite a barrage of rubber bullets and pepper spray by park rangers in recent weeks, the elk couldn’t be convinced to leave people alone.  

Growing pains: Farmers pay the price as elk herd damage crops, fences

coverIt is a common story — a species once eliminated returns to find not everyone welcomes it back with open arms. The return of wolves to northern Wisconsin, the reintroduction of beavers to the United Kingdom, and now the elk in Western North Carolina.  

After disappearing from North Carolina in the late 1700s, the elk have since made a comeback from the history books in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — from zero to a successful and ever-growing herd in short time. But with their renewed success in their historic home, so comes a newfound set of problems.

Book details the fall and the rise of elk in the East

out elkA new book has been published detailing the story of the grand, four-legged keepers of the Great Smoky Mountains Park: the elk.

150 and counting: WCU grad student research helps get a handle on impacts of mounting numbers of elk

out fr elkBy Jill Ingram • Guest writer, WCU public affairs office

Covering long distances in and around Cataloochee Valley, a Western Carolina University student is researching the growing, and sometimes problematic, elk population in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The goal is to provide park rangers with data to help manage the herd.

Elizabeth Hillard, a 30-year old graduate student in biology, has gone to great lengths to find out whatever she could about the creatures.

Case of three slain elk in Haywood County remains a mystery

fr elkThree elk were shot dead last month just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Mount Sterling area of Haywood County, and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is asking for the public’s help in finding the poacher or poachers involved.

Stalked by a not so wild elk

An old friend from Mer Rouge, La., George Bowe, was passing through a couple of weeks ago so we decided to take a ride down to Cataloochee and see if the elk were out. We got down to the valley around 3 p.m. and before we got to the Palmer Chapel we spotted elk, grazing and generally lounging around in the fields. It was apparent that the large bulls had already dropped their massive antlers but the young bulls with spikes and small 4-point racks still had antlers.

The elk were brought to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in two groups in early 2001. The first batch of 25 elk from Land Between the Lakes on the Tennessee-Kentucky border was released in 2001. In 2002, another 27 elk from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada were released into the valley. Original reintroduction plans called for a third release, but North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission decided that was too risky (they feared chronic wasting and/or other diseases might be transferred to local deer and/or cattle populations) and the Park Service nixed the last release.

Biologists in neighboring states don’t appear gripped by the same fears. Kentucky estimates its elk population at nearly 10,000 now. About 1,500 elk were released in Kentucky between 1997 and 2002. Tennessee has seen its 200 reintroduced elk (between 2000 and 2008) double in population and Virginia has plans to release hundreds of elk into the southwestern corner of the state this year.

The original reintroduction in the Smokies was billed as a 5-year experimental release during which time the impacts “on” the elk and “of” the elk would be studied and a determination would be made regarding the herd’s status. Because of the inability to release more elk, the study period was extended for three years. The Park Service changed the status of the elk in Cataloochee, early in 2010, from experimental to an official reintroduction. The herd has grown to between 130 and 140 animals at this point.

I was fortunate enough to get to go to Land Between the Lakes back in 2000 when the original elk were rounded up for the trip to the Park. Kim Delozier and his crew were quite professional and the capture went smoothly. However, it was apparent that these elk that lived in a 700-acre fenced-in enclosure were not the wild and wily beasts of the forests and prairies of the West, alert to every movement and/or scent that came their way; prepared to bolt for safety at a moment’s notice.

And the elk George and I found the other day at Cataloochee appeared to have a healthy dose of those genes. After we passed the Palmer Chapel we saw elk again in the front yard of the old Caldwell house. We drove on down to the end of the road and upon seeing no more elk in the fields, we returned to the Caldwell house.

There were a couple of elk (looked like a cow and calf) still grazing in the yard. We got out to get some photos and more elk came from behind the house.

I wanted to show George the old house so we started across the footbridge figuring the elk would mosey on. Well, they moseyed — only toward us, not away, so we returned to the road. Then about four young bulls came out of the woods and into the yard. A couple decided to practice their sparring moves.

Next, the whole group waded into the stream for a drink. And a really curious cow and calf started towards us. We didn’t want to run afoul of any of the Park’s elk protocol, so we retreated to the truck. The cow and calf came right up and started nosing the back hatch of my white Montero. Made me wonder if the Park Service had done any supplemental feeding during the snow and nasty weather this winter from white, Park Service vehicles or if maybe unthinking visitors have actually been feeding them.

Whatever the reason, it’s certainly not good to have 1,000-pound animals that acclimated to humans — they could present a danger to unsuspecting visitors. But more sadly, fed elk can be just as dead as fed bears.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Cataloochee Elk deemed a success

Fans of the elk herd in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be surprised to learn that until now, the elk’s existence here was merely an experiment — they theoretically could be rounded up and hauled away at any time.

But a decade after the first elk hoof hit the soil of Cataloochee Valley, the National Park  Service is ready to declare the elk project a success and designate the species as an “official” reintroduction.

The elk have grown from an initial 50 to an estimated 134 animals. Aside from the logistical nightmare of trying to find and remove them all, the park service would have been the target of public firestorm if it decided to do away with the elk at this point.

“I have never seen the ownership that people have shown toward these species,” said Kim Delozier, the Smokies’ lead wildlife biologist. “They are a large animal, a majestic animal and symbol of wilderness, and we tend to gravitate toward those things.”

The official designation as a reintroduced species means the elk, which were hunted to extinction in the Southern Appalachians in the 1800s, are back for good.

If their numbers keep growing, elk may one day roam widely across the mountains again. Kentucky and Tennessee have reintroduced elk as well, and Virginia announced just last month that it will follow suit.

“I would like to see elk throughout the Appalachian chain,” said Joe Treadway, a founding member of the Smokies chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and an early advocate for the reintroduction. “Will I see it in my lifetime? Maybe not, but I certainly hope my son and grandson will.”

The change in the elk’s status from an “experimental release” to an “official reintroduction” is rewarding, Treadway said. And it’s more than just semantics.

“It allows us to get together and develop a serious long-term management plan that to this point we have not had,” Treadway said.

Treadway, along with many in the Elk Foundation who supported the reintroduction, hope to hunt elk one day. Elk can never be hunted in the park, but Treadway hopes they will disperse into the national forests and state gamelands and that the population will grow enough to make hunting viable.

Under the new designation, elk that wander out of the park will be free to go their own way.

Before, the park would round elk up and bring them back if they roamed too far afield, into areas the park had declared early on as “no elk” zones. One elk was retrieved from Hot Springs. Another even made it to Glenville, a community near Cashiers, where it had taken up residence on a Christmas tree farm alongside a couple of domesticated reindeer.

Under the new plan, those elk would be left alone to make their home where they pleased.

Elk that wandered only a little bit outside the park had always been given a free pass unless the landowner complained. Delozier said the park rarely got complaints from neighboring property owners.

“Most people loved them. They think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Delozier said.

Some wouldn’t let the park come on their property to retrieve an elk even if the park wanted to.

If a park neighbor did complain about a stray elk, however, park rangers would go get it. Under the new designation, the park will no longer do so as a matter of course.

“The change is now we will not take the lead. The state will take the lead on dealing with elk calls,” said Delozier.

Delozier said the park service will help the state Wildlife Commission with calls about nuisance elk if requested.

Exactly how the state will deal with the new species isn’t known. It has not yet developed a management plan for elk.

In anticipation of the park service backing away from oversight of the elk, the Wildlife Commission proposed a status change earlier this year that would make it legal for landowners to shoot an elk if it was causing property damage.

The Wildlife Commission said it didn’t have the time or resources to police elk run-ins once the park stopped doing so. But public outcry led the Wildlife Commission to drop the proposed change in status.

When elk were released in 2000, there were a few naysayers. Some feared they would bring diseases with them that could spread to deer or even cattle. Farmers worried elk would get into their crops. Some worried they would overpopulate. Others simply doubted the elk would make it.

So far, none of the fears have come to fruition, Delozier said.

Still others claimed the elk would be easy targets for poachers. But only two elk have been shot.

One was maliciously targeted inside the park by a poacher, who was ultimately caught. The other was killed at the hands of a dairy farmer in Jonathan Creek, a community bordering Cataloochee Valley. An elk had repeatedly come onto his farm and eaten the cattle’s food. He called the park and told them he would be shooting the elk.

One elk prediction that hasn’t come true, at least not yet, has proved disappointing. Park rangers hoped that elk would migrate to some of the high grassy balds where continual grazing would help keep them open. The Southern Appalachians were once home to numerous high grassy balds, but most have been overtaken by trees and bushes in recent decades. The park has lost several of its former grassy balds. Two that are still left — Andrews and Gregory balds — are mowed to keep the forest from encroaching.

Delozier said if the elk stumbled upon the balds, they would likely take up residence there and keep them maintained. But the elk population has not grown enough yet to disperse throughout the park.

Hunting elk

Right now, elk are designated a non-game animal by the state, so it is illegal to shoot one even outside the national park boundary.

In Kentucky — where 1,500 elk were released between 1997 and 2002 — the population now numbers close to 10,000. A limited number of elk hunting permits are given out each year through a lottery system. This year, 40,000 applied for one of only 850 elk tags. Each person who applies forks over a $10 fee that goes to the state wildlife agency.

In Tennessee, an auction for one of its elk hunting tags in 2009 went for $17,000 on eBay.

Tennessee released 200 elk between 2000 and 2008, and now has a population of around 400. It held a lottery for just five hunting tags last year — a token number given the still small population.

Virginia plans to release several hundred elk in three mountain counties in the southwest corner of the state next year.

Tennessee and Kentucky — and soon Virginia — all have larger herds than North Carolina since they brought in more animals to start with. Unlike the other three states, however, North Carolina has indefinitely halted the release of any more elk.

The rule was put in place by the N.C. Wildlife Commission because it feared an elk could be carrying chronic wasting disease, a deadly and contagious illness that can infect any hoofed animal, including deer or cattle.

That stopped the Smokies from bringing in additional elk, and the park’s herd has been hamstrung as a result. For a few years, the numbers seemed touch and go. Black bears were eating so many elk calves that the herd was barely reproducing enough to replace those that died from natural causes.

But the herd finally got over that hump, thanks to a little help from park rangers who took to moving the black bears out of Cataloochee Valley during calving season.

This year, no bears were moved, and the herd still saw roughly 25 calves survive.

It bothers advocates of the herd that additional releases can’t take place.

“You have to worry about the long-term genetic pool, with the lack of genetic diversity can they grow and prosper like they need to?” Treadway said.

 

Give your two-cents

The National Park Service is seeking public comment on the long-range plan for managing the elk herd in the Smokies. To comment, go to parkplanning.nps.gov/grsm. Deadline is Sept. 27.

To read a copy of the environmental report on how elk have adapted to the Smokies and their long-term outlook, go to the outdoors page at www.smokymountainnews.com and click on this story.

 

Species comebacks in the Smokies

There have been several successful reintroductions in the Smokies, including river otter and peregrine falcons.

Only one has ever failed. A pack of red wolves released in Cades Cove were unable to make it, mostly due to competition from coyotes, which had filled the top predator niche once dominated by the wolves. Seven years after their release, the few wolves that had managed to hang on were removed and the project terminated.

Elk will now join the list of successful reintroductions in the park’s book.

“The reintroduction of the elk is another success story of increasing biodiversity in the park, like the peregrine falcon, as well as the continuing efforts to restore the brook trout,” said Holly Demuth, North Carolina director of Friends of the Smokies. “The viability of the coalescing elk herd shows that the park is a great refuge for wildlife.”

Smokies not pleased with Wildlife Commission stance on elk

The North Carolina Wildlife Commission is at odds with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over the status of the newly reintroduced elk herd.

The N.C. Wildlife Commission has come under fire for its plan to remove elk from the state list of species of special concern. As it scrambles to defend the delisting, the wildlife commission is pointing to a change in the herd’s status by the national park as the reason.

“From a biological perspective, with the information from the park we’ve gotten indicating they’ll declare the elk reintroduction a success, it means we don’t need to protect them with the special status,” said David Cobb, chief of the wildlife management division for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

But that’s not exactly right, according to Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the Smokies. Miller said the park has not yet categorized the reintroduction of elk a success.

“We never told them the reintroduction program was a success,” Miller said. “What we told them is we have a population that is stable barring some kind of disaster or human intervention.”

The park does plan to change the herd’s status from an “experimental release” to an official “reintroduction” later this year. Under the experimental release status, the park was monitoring the herd closely to see whether they were a good fit for the ecosystem. The shift to an official “reintroduction” is different from declaring it a success, however.

Elk were reintroduced to the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001. Since then the initial herd of 52 animals has grown in size to 110 animals.

Miller said the park would submit a formal letter clarifying its position to the Wildlife Commission before the end of the public comment period.

Elk delisting draws ire of protectors

“Elk don’t know how many feet a horse has.”

That’s the advice Bear Claw Chris Lapp gave Jeremiah Johnson as the pair hid behind their horses while stalking elk in the eponymous Robert Redford film. Well, according to Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, elk don’t know the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park either.

“I truly believe we need an elk management plan because the population will continue to grow and the elk don’t recognize the boundaries of Smoky Mountain National Park,” said Massie, representing the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.

While elk are protected inside the park’s boundary, they could lose their status as a species of special concern when wandering onto private property under a proposed change by the N.C. Wildlife Commission.

Hunting elk would still be illegal but private landowners could shoot elk causing property damage. Under the current rules, landowners are supposed to get a permit before shooting problem elk.

Massie was one of a host of people who turned out at a public hearing in Sylva last week on the rule change. With a herd population of only 110, the loss of even a few elk at the hands of careless private landowners could jeopardize their long-term viability, according to opponents of the rule change.

Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the Smokies, said that over a third of the herd now lives outside the park’s boundaries in Haywood County and the Cherokee Reservation.

David Cobb, chief of the wildlife management division for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said he had no way of knowing what the death of even a few elk would have on the herd.

“I can’t say what the death of one elk would do because I haven’t done the population study,” Cobb said.

Massie called on the N.C. Wildlife Commission to establish a management plan for the elk, something the state currently lacks.

Brad Howard, a wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said elk will essentially still be protected even though they won’t have special concern status.

“People seem to be concerned that people will start shooting elk at leisure,” Howard said. “That is not the case. Our enforcement guys are going to want to know why you shot this elk and show us the property damage that warrants why you shot this elk. There are very specific parameters and you have to justify the animal was in fact doing damage.”

Dan McCoy, former tribal chairperson of the ECBI, traveled to the meeting with his son Connor to speak up for the elk. McCoy told commissioners he’d purchased the boy a lifetime membership to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in the hopes that one day he would be able to hunt the animals.

“Our people are proud of these elk. They’re proud they’re there, but they still need our protection,” he said.

People who have put their time and money into establishing a healthy elk herd in Western North Carolina are demanding that the animals retain their status as a species of special concern.

“Listen to the hearts and minds of the people on this because that’s really what this is all about,” Ramona Bryson said.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Friends of the Smokies led a massive fundraising effort that garnered over $1.2 million to support the reintroduction project. A satellite herd has taken up residence on land owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, contributing to the sentiment that the N.C. Wildlife Commission is not the only stakeholder in the debate over the animals’ future.

Ray Bryson, another member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, was one of the volunteers who drove 59 hours round trip to Alberta, Canada, to deliver the elk to the park when the herd was first established. Bryson urged the Wildlife Commission to work with the national park and the tribe to establish a management plan that would expand the elks’ range into the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.

Cobb said his staff met with members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in person before the hearing and the discussion concerning their protected status is ongoing.

“This is nowhere close to a done deal,” said Cobb.

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