Bears might be the traditional roadside celebrities of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the competition is closing in.
This year marks the 12th anniversary of the experimental release of 25 elk in some of the park’s remotest corners, followed by the release of 27 more in 2002.
Despite calves being eaten by bears, bulls killed by poachers and occasional roadkills, the herd is still expanding.
“The current elk population in western North Carolina is believed to be approximately 140 animals, counting those elk both inside and outside of National Park boundaries,” said National Park Service wildlife biologist Joe Yarkovich, in a recent status report provided by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Savannah River chapter.
Elk once thrived among the open meadows and highland timber of North Carolina and Tennessee. But by the mid 1800s, they had vanished, mainly because of hunting and land-use changes, according to the Park Service, which is collaborating with other groups in the elk reintroduction experiment.
Many of the surviving introduced animals, and their offspring, have remained close to the original release site in the Cataloochee Valley in the park’s southwestern corner. Visitors to nearby Waynesville and Maggie Valley are seeing them frequently.
“Sometimes they are all over the place up there,” said Bobby Wrightm of Augusta, who photographed a handsome bull elk during a recent visit. “He was on a side road just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
Although the elk population is still growing in the 510,000-acre park, this year has been a tough one in terms of mortality, Yarkovich reported.
Eight elk have died this year – five males and three females – compared to an average annual mortality of just four elk during the 12 years they have lived in the park. Those eight fatalities included a poaching incident in which three elk were killed outside park boundaries.
“The park’s elk herd is still small and its future growth is variable depending on recruitment and survival rates across time,” the report said. “This year’s survival data will be added to the data from the previous 10 years and the population models will be re-analyzed.”
Although the herd is expected to grow, and elk remain protected in North Carolina, the prospect of the species moving into north Georgia is unlikely.
“If that herd continues to expand, there is always the possibility of a few individuals making an excursion into Georgia, but if they cross that line they would not be classified as wildlife,” said John Bowers, assistant game mamangement chief for Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division.
During the 1990s, state officials explored the concept of reintroducing elk, but concluded it would not be feasible.
“Basically, the presence of suitable habitat was the primary consideration,” Bowers said. “The determination was, we simply lack sufficient open range to support a viable elk population.”
Partners in the North Carolina elk project include Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Parks Canada, Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, Friends of the Smokies, the U.S.G.S. Biological Resources Division, and University of Tennessee.
Visitors who want to see elk during autumn foliage tours this year will have the best luck in the Cataloochee area, most easily accessed by taking Interstate 40 to Exit 20, according to the Park Service. Then turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow signs 11 miles into Cataloochee valley.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which attracts 9 million visitors each year, was dedicated Sept. 2, 1940, by one of America’s leading conservationists: President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
WATERFOWL SEASONS: Georgia’s Natural Resources Board voted Tuesday on hunting seasons and bag limits.
Using guidelines provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, duck hunting dates were set for Nov. 17-25 and Dec. 8-Jan. 27. Canada goose dates are the same with the addition of Sept. 1-30. Teal may only be hunted Sept. 8-23.
Youth waterfowl days will be Nov. 10-11.