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.
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.”