KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (WATE) – It has been 20 years since elk were first reinstated in 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?
Up to 10 million elk roamed North America before European settlers arrived on the continent. Exploration has brought unsustainable hunting practices, new diseases, and competition with domestic livestock for food resources. The last North Carolina moose was killed in the late 18th century, and the last Tennessee moose is said to have been killed in the early 19th century.
How did the reintroduction of elk to the Smokies begin?
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation approached Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1990s about the possibility of restoring elk in the park. After an environmental scan, disease risk assessment, and public comment, the park began a 5-year experimental release to see if a full reintroduction was 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, another 27 elk from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada, were released. More elk were due to be released in 2003, but experimental releases were suspended due to concerns about the introduction of the chronic wasting disease into North Carolina.
The experimental phase was extended until 2008. After this period, the experiment was considered a success and the park embarked on a full reintroduction effort.
Who is involved in reintroduction efforts?
The main groups involved are the National Park Service, the University of Tennessee, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Committee, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
How many moose are there in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Rough estimates place the total population estimates at around 200 in the Cataloochee Valley, the Oconaluftee Valley, and the areas around Cherokee, North Carolina. To get a more accurate measure 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. . The results of the study are expected in 2023.
What about predators?
Black bears threatened some elk calves early in the reintroduction. At one point, the national park briefly captured bears and released them away from areas frequented by elk. Elk quickly learned to better protect themselves and their calves from predators.
What’s the next step for the species?
Environmentalists say the safe passage of elk and other wildlife on the interstate highway and other highways by creating overpasses and underpasses for wildlife could be a huge boost to conservation efforts as well as reduce vehicle accidents.
About 26,000 vehicles per day travel the 28-mile stretch of I-40 through the Pigeon River Gorge on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The North Carolina Department of Transportation recently announced preparations for the construction of I-40 over Harmon Den Road, which would incorporate a wildlife crossing into the new structure. The bridge is the first of five assemblies to be replaced by the NCDOT.
How can I see Elk in the Smokies safely?
Although there have been sightings of elk in Tennessee, the best location for viewing is in the Cataloochee Valley and Oconaluftee Valley near Cherokee, North Carolina. The best time to view elk is from mid-September to mid-October during the “rutting season” when the herd congregates and the male elk become more active and aggressive as they compete for female mates. .
Approaching within 50 meters or any distance that disturbs or displaces a moose is illegal in the park and may be punished with fines and arrest. Watch this video created by GSMNP on how you can safely observe elk while promoting herd welfare.
How can I learn more about elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website to learn more about elk biology. GSMNP biologist Joe Yarkovich recently hosted an elk reintroduction information seminar with Discover Life in America, which can be found on Youtube. Other helpful online resources include blueridgemountainlife.com and a detailed article on the reintroduction of elk can be found in a recent issue of Smokies Life magazine.