What’s next for elk in the Smokies 20 years after experimental release

Outdoors Bound

A bull elk crosses Heintooga Spur Road just off the Parkway near milepost 458.2 by Harold Blackwood. Source: Blue Ridge Parkway NPS

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE/WFXR) — It’s been 20 years since elk were first reintegrated into Great Smoky Mountains National Park and conservation efforts in North Carolina and Tennessee continue to this day.

Were elk native to the Appalachian mountain range?

As many as 10 million elk roamed across North America before European settlers arrived on the continent. Exploration brought unsustainable hunting practices, new diseases and competition with domestic livestock for food resources. The last elk in North Carolina was killed in the late 18th century and the last elk in Tennessee is thought to have been killed in the early 19th century.

How did the reintroduction of elk into the Smokies begin?

The Rocky Mountain Elk foundation approached Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1990s about the possibility of restoring elk to the park. After environmental analysis, disease risk assessment and public comment, the park began a 5-year experimental release to see if full reintroduction could be possible.

In 2001, 25 elk from Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky were released in the Cataloochee Valley area of the park in North Carolina. The following year, 27 more elk from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada were released. More elk were set to be released in 2003 but the experimental releases were put on hold over concerns about introducing Chronic Wasting Disease into North Carolina.

The experimental phase was extended through 2008. Following that period, the experiment was deemed a success and the park moved into a full reintroduction effort.

Who is involved in reintroduction efforts?

The primary groups involved are the National Park Service, University of Tennessee, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Committee and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

How many elk are in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

Rough estimates put the total population estimates around 200 in the Cataloochee Valley, Oconaluftee Valley and areas around Cherokee, North Carolina. To get a more accurate gauge of the total population, graduate students at the University of Tennessee in coordination with partners are conducting a regional population study using fecal DNA analysis of areas frequented by elk. Results of the study are expected in 2023.

What about predators?

Black bears did threaten some of the elk calves early on in the reintroduction. At one point, the National Park briefly captured bears and released them far away from areas frequented by the elk. Cow elks soon learned how to better protect themselves and their calves from predators.

What’s next for the species?

Conservationists say safe passage for elk and other wildlife over interstate highway and other roadways by creating wildlife overpasses and underpasses could be a huge boost to conservation efforts as well as reducing vehicle crashes.

Around 26,000 vehicles per day drive the 28-mile stretch of I-40 through the Pigeon River Gorge at the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The North Carolina Department of Transportation recently announced preparations for construction on I-40 over Harmon Den Road that would integrate a wildlife crossing into the new structure. The bridge is the first of five which are set to be replaced by NCDOT.

How can I safely view Elk in the Smokies?

Though there have been some elk sightings in Tennessee, the best place for viewing is in Cataloochee Valley and Oconaluftee Valley near Cherokee, North Carolina. The best time to view elk is from mid-September to mid-October during the ‘rut season’ when the herd gathers and male elk become more active and aggressive as they compete for female companions.

Approaching within 50 yards, or any distance that disturbs or displaces an elk is illegal in the park and can be punished by fines and arrest. Watch this video created by GSMNP about how you can safely view elk while promoting the well-being of the herd.

Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website to learn about elk biology. GSMNP biologist Joe Yarkovich recently conducted an informative seminar about elk reintroduction with Discover Life in America which can be found on Youtube. Other useful online resources include blueridgemountainlife.com and an in-depth article on the elk reintroduction can be found in a recent issue of Smokies Life magazine.

There is also a wild elk herd that has been re-established in Virginia. The herd is being managed by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) in Buchanan County. DWR even has a live “Elk Cam” set up where the herd can be viewed. DWR reports that the Virginia herd is thriving and growing.

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