For the first time in 150 years, visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains are catching glimpses of one of the continent's most beautiful creatures: the elk.
But getting them there wasn't easy, according to wildlife biologist Brandon Wear, who is working to re-establish elk within the 510,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"This project involved more than 10 years of research," he told members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation during a presentation Friday in Augusta. "It didn't happen overnight."
Elk, which weigh up to 800 pounds, 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.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a conservation group founded 18 years ago, has worked with the National Park Service, University of Tennessee and other groups to help forge a plan to restore the elk, Wear said.
In February 2001, the great experiment began with the release of 25 elk, followed last year by the importation of 27 more.
The relocated elk originated in Alberta, Canada - whose native herd is the closest genetic match to the native elk that roamed the East in earlier centuries, Wear said.
Preliminary findings from the experiment are encouraging.
"Three of the 52 elk died from stress-related starvation," he said. "Although that is not good, it is a small number from animals that were released."
The encouraging news is that the wandering elk appear to be adapting well to their new surroundings. Last spring, one of the females gave birth to a calf - the first such event in the Smokies in at least 150 years.
"He was so well camouflaged by his mother that it took scientists 16 hours to find him," Wear said.
It was one of three calves born last year, followed by six more this spring.
Some calves were killed by predators - coyotes and bears - but the herd numbers about 52 animals, which is encouraging.
"Elk would not be hunted in the park, so some natural predation is good, and expected," Wear said. "By all accounts, it looks like this experiment is going very well."
The Park Service and other agencies have committed to carrying out the elk project another three years with intense radio monitoring and evaluations of their suitability to resume their place in eastern habitat.
Another 25 elk were scheduled to be released next spring, but fears of chronic wasting disease - an affliction fatal to elk and deer that surfaced in Wisconsin this year - caused many states to ban importation of elk.
"With the concern over the disease, we're not sure we're going to be able to stock any more right now," Wear said. "But on the other hand, the animals that are there appear to be doing well, so we may not need any more."
All elk released in the Smokies underwent exhaustive medical and disease assessment analysis to avoid spreading any ailments that could affect the environment, he said.
For example, scientists found several ticks on the Canadian animals brought to North Carolina, prompting them to treat all elk with insecticide - simply to avoid introducing any new strains if insect in the park.
Today the elk are thriving in their new home, which is in the Cataloochee Valley near Waynesville, N.C. Other re-established elk herds exist in Arkansas, Kentucky and other states.
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.
Wear spoke Friday at Julian Smith Casino during an annual banquet sponsored by the Elk Foundation's CSRA chapter.
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