Elk Population Growing at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The elk population in Great Smoky is booming. NPS photo.

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.


Please bring back the Red Wolves. I seen a red wof as a teenager & have never forgotten it. It was the most memorable event in my life. Sooner or later the ungulate population will get too large and offset the natural order & huntin IS NOT THE ANSWER!!!!


That's great news. Hopefully, it'll work out better than the white deer experiment in Point Reyes.

What "white deer" experiment at Point Reyes?

Actually, they're not "white deer" at all, but rather non-native Axis and Fallow deer (and the Fallow deer can appear white in color). Axis deer are native to India and Sri Lanka, while Fallow deer are more commonly at home in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor.

In short, both were introduced to the Point Reyes area back in the 1940s, before the national seashore existed in name, by a local landowner. Park officials have a plan to remove all these non-native deer by 2021. You can learn more at this site.

In the fall of 2008, the Seashore began focusing solely on contraceptive methods to control the non-native deer population. Over the next few years, the park's ambitious deer contraception program will involve veterinarians and wildlife contraception experts and utilize the most advanced techniques to ensure that the remaining deer herd is safely and humanely controlled. Park biologists and wildlife experts have determined that application of fertility control methods to the estimated 100 - 150 remaining deer over the next 5 years will likely result in a non-reproductive remnant herd. The non-native deer will not reproduce and will live out their natural lives within the Seashore over the next 10-15 years. The Seashore's contraception program is one of the largest studies ever attempted with free-ranging wild deer.

See Friends of the White Deer

The Park has a contractor slaughtering the Fallow or Axis deer introduced to the Point Reyes area in 1948. The former Channel Islands unit superintendent is speaking out.

Thanks for the clarification. I guess I must have heard the term "white deer" used in reference to the Point Reyes' axis deer and fallow deer at some point or other; I just don't remember it. (Is there some vernacular word term for the park's Tule elk, too?) The info Kurt furnished about the use of contraceptive technology for this wildlife population control need is absolutely fascinating. Does anyone know about the status of the contraceptive program for the feral horses at Cape Lookout National Seashore?

The CBS News affiliate in San Fransisco reported on Jan. 28, 2008: Controversial Deer Slaughter Resumes At Pt. Reyes

"Hunters from White Buffalo Inc., an East Coast company, shot between 8 and 10 fallow deer Monday morning in the Point Reyes National Seashore before weather conditions curtailed Monday's planned removal of the non-native deer species from the national park.

The eradication is intended to preserve the park's native black-tailed deer and tule elk populations.

John Dell'Osso, spokesman for the Point Reyes National Seashore, said the deer were shot in the Limantour wilderness area of the park. The deer are shot once in the brain by sharpshooters and additional lethal removal efforts this week are weather dependant, Dell'Osso said.

The extermination of non-native axis and fallow deer began when an experimental contraceptive drug was used on 80 deer last summer. Since then 400 deer have been shot, Dell'Osso said.
Dell'Osso said helicopters are used to herd the deer to other locations and shooting the deer in the brain is a humane lethal method of removing the deer.

The National Park Service approved a plan a year ago to get rid of 1,200 non-native deer, claiming they were a threat to the native species in the area.
The Park Service contracted Connecticut-based White Buffalo, which killed about 400 of the deer in the summer and fall. The company returned last Friday to continue the job."

I have heard that elk and coyote were also introduced into Mt Rogers National Receartion Area. Can any confirm this? We live 6 miles from the park and coyote sighting in the last few years have skyrocketed.

Roger, I don't doubt you've got plenty of coyotes, but I seriously doubt they were legally introduced. Coyotes are considered vermin in the southeast, with many people ranking them right up there with kudzu and fire ants. Here in South Carolina, coyotes were illegally introduced in some counties by hunters who enjoyed running them with hounds. Now coyotes live in all 46 counties of the state and the coyote population has spiraled out of control -- much to the chagrin of those of us who appreciate turkeys, foxes, cats, and the other creatures they regularly kill. I'm not saying that coyotes have no role to play in this ecosystem, only that they have grown too numerous.

Regarding the Fallow/Axis deer in Point Reyes. They were given by the San Francisco zoo to the local landowner in the 40s to add variety to the hunting. Once the place became wilderness, hunting was stopped and the non native specie started displacing the native deers. A few years ago, people started agonizing over how getting rid of the non native deers, and that contraceptive idea was floated to appease local environmentalists who could not live with the idea of killing those deers. From what I remember, the contraceptive program was extremely expensive (they had to shoot the contraceptive in the deer, then examine their droppings to make sure it worked) and was not 100% effective. I'm no scientist, but I'm not sure that I get the benefits of doing that contraceptive experiment. Could we save some money, kill those remaining deers and use the money saved somewhere else in the NPS?

What?!? Kill deer in a national park?!?!?!


It likely would save money and, by being quicker (a number of weeks versus years), save some vegetation. But the national park setting is the controversial aspect of it all. Similar situations are being played out in Rocky Mountain National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park and, I believe, Badlands National Park, all which have growing elk populations. And, of course, back East there's a serious white-tailed deer problem in some NPS units. The burning question in all these places is whether to allow a public hunt, use NPS sharpshooters, hire sharpshooters, employ contraceptives, or a mix of all of the above.

Of course, another alternative is returning predators -- in most cases wolves -- to do the dirty work and, along the way, enhance the overall health of the ecosystem. It seems to be working in Yellowstone, but that 2.2-million-acre park not only is much larger than most of these other places, but also removed from large cities where wolves might get a taste for fido or kitty.

Now, if Point Reyes National Seashore was also "a Preserve," well, hunting likely wouldn't be such a big deal, as that's how hunting was shoe-horned in some other NPS units (aka Katmai National Park AND Preserve).

But even if that suffix were added, how do you manage a public hunt in a national park setting that's as accessible as Point Reyes or even Rocky Mountain? Do you want gut piles left lying on the ground? Do you want mom and dad and their two kids cruising by while a hunter is cleaning his kill? How do you prevent wayward bullets from hitting non-hunting park tourists?

All sensitive questions that have complicated answers.

Hunting in Parks? It is being ... I think the word is, "agonized" over by various Park administrations.

Point Reyes does highlight the special problems of small Park-units, with animal-problems they would like to control. Gut piles do not have to be left; these are small deer. We have strong garbage bags that would be fine for packing out the offal. Bow hunters are well-represented and usually the cream of the hunting fraternity: no need for a 'shooting gallery'. The Park had no difficulty setting things up with "White Buffalo" so they could shoot 400 deer in Point Reyes by January 2008, so I have to think that once they are open-mindedly interested in working out a hunting-solution, the objective logistics of it will not exceed their ability.

California has had marauding coyotes kill children (coyotes!), are watching several other growing human-wildlife conflicts that are best solved by hunting ... and are looking at reversing their policies suppressing hunting.

At this point in history, the Parks come across as "deer in the headlights", with respect to animal-problems and the option of using hunting to address them.

Perhaps, realistically & pragmatically, 'the ice will be broken' to address the problem of the changing behavior of newly-protected predatory carnivores. Ultimately, nature being what it is, predator populations that can see no reason to distinguish between deer and humans will require an 'education program', and hunting is by far the most effective way to achieve that.

Although people like to view elk standing in a meadow, from the comfort of their automobile, they have a different reaction to having their lawns and gardens trashed by herds moving through. Elk appear to have 'trip-points', at which herds fission and then strike out for new terrain: it is during this phase that phone-lines at Fish & Game and Parks are suddenly jammed.

The long-term trends do seem to point at the adoption of hunting in the Parks. I.e., once the fallow and axis deer are gone from Point Reyes, we know that the native deer species are also inclined to overwhelm the landscape and do the same kind of damage that got the imported species targeted.

In the big picture, the notion that hunting is fundamentally offensive and unacceptable is probably untenable. Humans - though classified biologically as "omnivores", are predatory pack-hunters, going way back. Even chimpanzees hunt.

Hunting to control and exterminate the population of non-native species has been done a number of times in national parks and even in wilderness areas. Not too far from Point Reyes National Seashore, in Pinnacles National Monument and the Pinnacles Wilderness all feral pigs were killed after the completion of a fence around the whole monument in 2003. The pigs disturbed the soil and the native vegetation in the lower parts of the monument, particularly in the river corridors. I'm pretty sure we can collect a number of such projects so the extermination of non-native deer in PORE is not unique.

There is plenty of precedent for sport hunting in National Seashores (not to mention National Lakeshores). For example, Cumberland Island National Seashore annually schedules six archery and primitive weapons (black powder rifle) hunts for white-tailed deer and feral hogs, and waterfowl hunting has been a popular activity at Cape Lookout National seashore for many years. There is also precedent for hunting in some of the 58 National Parks. Hawaii Volcanoes NP, for example, schedules carefully controlled hunts to control feral pigs and mouflon sheep.

Zebulon, the figure I saw quoted for contraceptive control was $3,000 per animal. That strikes me as being on the very low side, since it (conveniently) doesn't take into account the federal subsidies over the years for research and development. It also doesn't take into account a number of risk factors under the general title of "unintended consequences."


Thanks for the hunt-pointers. That sounds like quite the fence, around Pinnacles! I would be interested in compiling a list of the extermination, control and hunting projects both past, current & contemplated in the Park System. I hear 'blips' about such things from time to time, but have never encountered a resource that gathers the cases together. I would be willing to do the work, if others can give me clues about what has taken place. I would like to put together a chart-type organization of this information, and will share the results.

Bob Janiskee,

Your mention of archery and black powder in Seashores & Lakeshores underscores my impression, that these 'elite' hunting-cadres are more-suited, more-acceptable and would be easier for the Parks to manage. I'm aware there are even atltl & spear enthusiasts lobbying for recognition & venues. Thanks for mentioning the Hawaii Volcanoes pig & sheep hunts!

I'd also like to hear about 'messier' animal-issues that have not necessarily been address/resolved by hunting or extermination or contraception or relocation, etc. The mountain goats in Olympic are one such example. TIA.


Check the history of Channel Islands. There have been various campaigns to eliminate exotic species on the islands. Don't forget the burros of Grand Canyon. The granddaddy of all such programs goes on at the Galapagos.

Rick Smith

Ted: Archery (and crossbow?) hunts are least objectionable in terms of noise control and hazard reduction, but animal rights activists and many others insist that using arrows or crossbow bolts to dispatch large animals is inhumane. (Hunting with atlatls would presumably be even more objectionable, since very few people would be able to hit a deer in a vital area using a spear-thrower.) Incidentally, I didn't mean to imply that hunters in the national parks are limited to archery and primitive weapons in all cases. For example, sport hunting is a traditional visitor activity at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and while shotguns are preferred for small game, the weapon of choice for deer and bear is the scope-sighted high powered rifle. Rifles are also permitted for deer and bear hunting at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which also has shotgunning for waterfowl and upland game (including rabbits, snowshoe hares, grouse, and woodcock). I believe that only shotguns and primitive weapons are allowed at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where sport hunting for various species is permitted during nearly four months a year. And of course, hunting with high powered weapons is routinely allowed in the National Preserves. The bottom line here is that people who think that sport hunting is a rare activity in the National Park System just haven't looked into the matter deeply enough.

Here's another successful elk reintroduction program that started adjacent to a park; it's now established a herd at the Buffalo National River:

In 1981, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, in cooperation with private citizens initiated another elk restoration project in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas. Between 1981 and 1985, 112 elk from Colorado and Nebraska were released … Today, most of the estimated 400-450 elk in the state occur … on National Park Service land along the upper and middle sections of the Buffalo National River.

You'll find more details here.

$3,000 per animal x 150 animals = $450,000!! Sounds pricey to me, especially since the NPS could probably auction off the right to hunt those deers and actually make money off of it. Then again, I'm more of a numbers guy by trade, and I remember going hunting with my dad when I was a teenager. Point Reyes is also in the San Francisco bay area where everybody (including me) has an opinion on everything.

On a semi related subject, I learned recently that our local park district killed 2 mountain lions less than a year ago because they were killing sheep right next to a university (which backs up to a park).

Zebulon: I want to emphasize that the "$3,000 per animal" I mentioned is a recollection. I am virtually certain I read that in a report, but I didn't go back and check. BTW, Almost every time I visit the the Bay Area, my hosts take me to Briones Regional Park in Contra Costa County for a long hike up and down those rolling hills. You live in the Bay Area, so can you tell me if mountain lions live in or pass through Briones? My hosts, who are Pleaant Hill residents, tell me its a "definite maybe," but I'd sure like to get a more definitive answer. I'll be hiking Briones in mid-January.

I don't know for sure, but basically mountain lions are all over the bay area. I also saw this: http://www.bahiker.com/cgi-bin/ikonboard/topic.cgi?forum=4&topic=47
The good news is that the big cats don't see us as prey... usually. :)

Its not "huntin" its "hunting". Where wildlife management and "hunters" work in concert, species such as deer and elk thrive. Its not how many, but how healthy a herd is, that inevidibly spells their continued existance.

I hope Hunting is allowed someday. If you want a species to survive, start managing them...