Elk reintroduction project appears successful
Beth Pleming - Staff writer
From: The Mountaineer Printed 2/28/08
Despite a few unforeseen challenges along the way, the elk of Cataloochee Valley appear to be adjusting to their new habitat well, and park officials said their chances of staying look promising. This year marks the expiration of an extended experimental period to determine whether elk populations could again be successfully sustained by the Great Smoky Mountain habitat. Great Smoky Mountain National Park Wildlife Manager Joe Yarkovich, who has been deeply involved in the elk reintroduction project, provided an update on the elk's progress Monday night at the Waynesville branch of the Haywood County Library. While data is still being examined to determine the herd's chance of survival, "I will say unofficially that it's a success," Yarkovich said. "We're looking pretty good. We've finally got the number of animals we wanted. We"ve got a ton of public support. Calves are hitting the ground and surviving. We're in pretty good shape for the future." Once all of the project's data has been reviewed, University of Tennessee researchers will determine whether the experiment was a success. Based on their models, they will make the call, then report their findings to park officials who will make the final decision as to whether it's a successful reintroduction, said Yarkovich. "If it was looking like a failure, we may remove the elk from the park all together. If it's a success, we will scale back on our research and (animal) tracking and let the animals go on their own," he said. "In my personal opinion, things are looking very positive." But while the results are looking good, things haven't always gone as planned. Unforeseen problems In keeping with the national park system's mission to restore extrapated species whenever possible, park officials in 1996 began efforts to reintroduce the once-native elk back to the mountains of North Carolina. Park officials, working in conjunction with the University of Tennessee, determined an area with less than 10 percent canopy would be necessary for elk to survive, which limited the options for their release to two locations: Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley. Of those, Cataloochee was most suitable, Yarkovich said. It was also determined that an adequate sample size would require a minimum of 75 to 90 animals. Next, a five-year experimental phase began in 2000 to determine whether the Cataloochee Valley habitat could sustain the elk population long term. The plan was to release elk in three yearly increments "” one herd per year from 2001 to 2003, but that didn't happen. The first herd "” including 25 elk from Land Between the Lakes, Ky. "” was released in 2001, followed by the release of 27 additional Elk from Elk Island National Park, Alberta, in 2002. But in 2003, things were interrupted when a nation-wide concern regarding chronic wasting disease stopped the movement of deer and elk between states. No animals were released that year, leaving park officials with inconclusive results due to an inadequate sample size. At that time, the experiment was extended for three years. "The results were different than what we had in mind,"said Yarkovich. "We needed 75 to 90 animals, and we ended up with 52." There were other challenges, as well. In addition to an overall population that was too small, the existing herd lacked enough females, he continued. Furthermore, due to the high density of black bears living in the Smokies, predation became a problem. Finally, although calves were being born, few were surviving, and those that did survive were mostly males. "You can't sustain a population if babies don't survive," said Yarkovich. "Things were not going our way." But park officials had an idea. The solution Park officials initiated efforts to manage predation by relocating black bears to another area of the park, about 40 miles outside of Cataloochee Valley. Contrary to rumor, "we did not kill any bears," Yarkovich noted. Also, the elk were learning how to deal with predators more effectively. They became less afraid to fight back, he said, and mother elk were learning how to better hide their young calves. Unlike adult elk, calves don't put off a scent, said Yarkovich. So, the mother elk were learning to feed their calves during the mornings and evenings, then bed them down in the woods where they are well-hidden during the day. As long as they left the calves alone and didn't go near them, there was no scent for predators to follow. The park's fire management plan, which included prescribed burns, further contributed to better calf protection by creating a more diverse, therefore better, habitat for both hiding calves and feeding. The result While several factors contributed toward the solution, efforts to transplant bears seemed to produce the most dramatic results, said Yarkovich. In 2005, prior to moving any bears, the calf survival rate was at 25 percent, he said. The following year, after bears were relocated, that percentage jumped to 80 percent. In 2007, calves survived at a 70 percent rate. Although bears have an incredible homing instinct and eventually migrate back, Yarkovich said, the time it takes them to migrate (about 11 days) seems to have been enough to do the trick. While elk typically give birth to one calf per year, and with the increased chance of survival, park officials finally have the population size they were initially after. Although a few years behind schedule, "we may have just got them now, but hey, we've got them," Yarkovich said. And given all the circumstances "” less predation problems, higher calf survival rate and an adequate population size, which now includes an effective female to male ratio (1.3 females to every 1 male) "” park officials are optimistic, believing the elk of Cataloochee Valley may be here to stay.