Blue Ridge Country - May/June 2015 - 8
Hunted to near-extinction by the
early 1800s, elk have been
reintroduced to the region,
with positive results.
WilDlifE biologist JoE YaRkovich didn't know much
about elk when he began managing the reintroduction
program in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
in 2006. Now, he says, "I can literally sit in my office [in
North Carolina's Oconaluftee Valley] and hear bulls
bugling in the fall. If you've never heard it before, it's a
pretty eerie sound. It's not the sound you would expect
an 800-pound animal to make. They stretch their necks
out and look all big and tough and start tearing up the
ground. And then they let out this high-pitched squeal."
The fact that Yarkovich, and visitors to several
Appalachian states, can see and hear the large, deer-like
mammals at all is nothing short of remarkable, given
the reality that, by the early 1800s, they had been completely wiped out east of the Mississippi River due to
overhunting, habitat loss and diseases contracted from
"Everybody's familiar with the plight of the buffalo,
the mass killing," Yarkovich points out. "The same thing
was going on with elk, but it didn't seem to get the attention the buffalo had."
Historical records are sketchy, especially in the
Southeast. Before their near-extermination, however, as
many as 10 million elk inhabited North America.
Realizing there were only about 100,000 left - all in
Yellowstone National Park - wildlife experts set aside
land there to preserve them. The herd flourished, and
in the late 1990s some of the animals were successfully
relocated to Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau and to
grassy, reclaimed strip mines in eastern Kentucky. The
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation then teamed up with
the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to do the
same thing in the peaceful valleys of Cataloochee in
western North Carolina.
The first 25 Manitoban elk, which were genetically
closest to the now-extinct Eastern species, were relocated
from Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes National
Recreation Area in 2001. A year later, 27 more animals
arrived from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada.
courtesy of the national park service
by Nancy Henderson
Elk have adapted well to their new and natural habitat in the East.
Ear-tagged and fitted with radio collars, the Cataloochee
herd adapted well to the open, grassy fields at the southeastern edge of the Smokies. Some of the elk and their
offspring have since migrated to nearby Maggie Valley,
Balsam Mountain and Cherokee.
Yarkovich estimates that there are at least 140 of
the animals in the Cataloochee area, although, he
admits, "the exact number is a question that everybody wants to know the answer to, including myself.
The problem is that in the East there aren't really any
accurate ways to census an elk population because all
the traditional methods are based on western landscapes where there's really high sightability. We don't
have that here."
Still, says Yarkovich, noting that Virginia has joined
the Appalachian elk restoration program, "there's no
mistaking that the herd has grown. They've expanded
their range and the general public seems to be getting
more used to them because we're not getting as many
calls from landowners, saying, 'Hey, there's an elk in
my yard.' Everyone is kind of settling into it."
The downside, Yarkovich says, is that "people are
loving the elk to death." Tourists are often tempted to
feed or pet the animals, or get close to snap photos.
This greatly endangers the elk; if an animal becomes
aggressive in its quest for the human food it has grown
accustomed to, it may have to be put down.
Curious visitors also need to remember that the
cows, which give birth from late May to early July, can
be just as territorial as the bulls. "I've been charged by
far more female elk than I have by males," Yarkovich
says, "from getting too close to their calves."