If the elk herd at Great Smoky Mountains National Park keeps growing like this, perhaps a gray wolf recovery program will be needed to keep the ungulates from over-grazing the park.
Seriously, though, since Great Smoky biologists first got into the elk recovery business in 2001 with 52 animals, the herd has grown to roughly 95, according to the latest estimates.
“This year’s calving season was another big success in terms of survival for the calves," says Joe Yarkovich, the park's elk project manager. "A total of 19 calves has been confirmed to have been born this year, the same number of calves born in 2007, but the survival rate this year was higher. This year 16 of the 19 calves born -- 84 percent -- are thought to be still alive, while last year only 13 of the 19 calves survived.
“If there is a downside this calving season, Ranger “Yarkovich continued, “the sex ratio of the calves born was fairly poor from the standpoint of herd growth. Of the 16 surviving calves this year, only five are female, 10 are male, and the sex of the last one is yet to be determined. Ultimately, the number of breeding females in the herd will have the greatest effect on their long-term success, so we would always like to see more females being born.”
Of the calves that did not survive, Ranger Yarkovich said that one appeared to have died from natural causes while the other two were never found, so they could have died of natural causes or been taken by predators.
During the first few years of the experiment, calf survival had averaged only around 50 percent, due almost entirely to predation by bears. Biologists believe that the improved survival rates are due to a combination of improved parenting by the cows and predator management efforts that began in 2006.
Each year since 2006 bears were trapped in and around Cataloochee Valley during the late-May to early July calving season, then radio-collared and relocated to the Twenty Mile area located in the western portion of the park in North Carolina. The bears’ movements were tracked after they are released and, even though a number of them returned to Cataloochee, biologists believe that that by the time they got back the young calves were mobile enough to travel safely with their mothers.
Biologists say that there were five adult elk that died during the year. Of these, three died of undetermined, but apparently natural, causes. One was struck by a vehicle along Big Cove Road in Cherokee and was euthanized as a result of his injuries. Finally, a yearling bull was found dead in Little Cataloochee on November 5, but necropsy results and disease tests on the animal have not been returned yet.
“We expect 2009 to be another exciting year for the park’s elk program.” says Ranger Yarkovich. "In terms of calf production there are several young cows that should give birth to their first calves next summer, so we have the potential for another record-setting year for herd expansion. And, next fall the rut should be quite a contest as we have quite a few bulls which are nearing ten years of age, which is when they develop the largest antlers. So if the food supply is good we have the potential for even more spectacular racks to be seen next year.
"There are also a few rather aggressive younger bulls that will be gaining weight and antler mass, so competition during the 2009 rut should certainly be exciting.”
Park biologists say that winter elk viewing is best during early mornings and late afternoons but that on the colder days the elk can often be seen in the open fields all day long, particularly when it is overcast. They caution that narrow, winding, gravel Cataloochee Road is frequently icy, even when there is no snow, so drivers need to drive carefully.
During 2009 park managers plan to publish an Environmental Assessment that will lay out all the findings of research that was conducted during the experimental release and will invite comments regarding any concerns which the public may have. Concurrent with the EA they will be producing an Elk Management Plan that will include a long-term strategy for managing elk in the Smokies and the park.