Great Smoky Mountains National Park lures visitors with its rumpled, mist-cloaked mountains, its leaping streams, dense forests, and Appalachian history. The thrill of hearing a bull elk's bugle echoing off the mountainsides also is becoming a powerful lure, thanks to an elk recovery program that's developed a healthy herd of the iconic ungulates in the Cataloochee Valley and Oconaluftee areas.
Begun in 2001, the recovery program has experienced ups and downs during the past eight years, but this year's calving season has for the first time pushed the park's elk herd above 100 animals, according to Joe Yarkovich, who oversees the elk management program for the park.
"There have been a total of 19 calves born this year, 16 of which have survived, which makes 2009 one of the best years yet for herd recruitment," he says. "While the sex of several of the calves has yet to be determined, it appears that they are split about evenly between male and female. Two of the calves that died were killed by bears and the third was very underweight when it was born. No bears were relocated as part of elk calving season this year, so it is very encouraging to see survival rates so high this year.
"Initially there were 52 elk released into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With this year’s calving season included, there are currently about 110 elk in the herd," said Ranger Yarkovich. "There are 55 female elk, 45 male elk, and 8-10 whose sex has not yet been determined (2009 calves). These elk are spread fairly evenly across all age classes."
With the fall rut under way in the park, the attraction of watching, and listening to, the elk has brought more visitors into the park, says the ranger. While there are elk both in the Cataloochee Valley, and the Oconaluftee areas, it sounds like Cataloochee is the place to head if elk are on your wildlife checklist.
The fall rut is in full swing and there has been plenty of excitement around the herd so far! The cows have been divided into several different harems and there have been several different bulls seen with each harem. The most dominant bulls in Cataloochee so far have been Nos. 16, 3, 67, and an unmarked bull from the Cove Creek area. Bull No. 67 and the unmarked bull are the first bulls in Cataloochee to have been born in GSMNP and become dominant. The dominant bull in the Oconaluftee area is No. 74, also born in GSMNP. All of the bulls this year have very impressive antlers, which can be seen as a sign that there is high quality forage available for the elk.
"While many visitors may not realize it, their actions while they are in elk habitat have a direct effect on the safety and well-being of not only themselves and other visitors, but also the elk," says Ranger Yarkovich. "When humans are in close proximity to elk, there is potential for elk-human conflicts that could result in serious injury to humans or contribute to the demise of an elk. While there is potential for conflict throughout the year, the greatest threats exists in the spring when cows give birth and fiercely defend their young and during the fall breeding season when bull elk are defending their harem. There are a few simple things that visitors can do to help improve the quality of their wildlife viewing while maintaining a safe and healthy balance with the elk:"
* If you make the trip into the Cataloochee Valley, remember to pull your vehicle off of the road when viewing wildlife, as it is becoming increasingly busy and traffic can congest quickly on the narrow road.
* Remember that the elk are at an especially agitated state right now with the pressures of the mating season, and they can become aggressive suddenly. Remain in or near your vehicle at all times in the presence of elk and do not approach them!
* Bring binoculars or zoom lenses. Approaching wildlife within 50 yards or any distance that disturbs them is illegal and dangerous. Even seemingly calm elk can be very unpredictable and defend themselves or their young if they perceive a threat. Binoculars and zoom lenses can help you view the elk and get great pictures without disturbing them.
* Be very mindful of your food and clean up after yourself. Not only is feeding wildlife illegal, but once an elk is accustomed to human food its lifespan is typically significantly shorter for several reasons. Elk can quickly become nuisance animals and pose serious threats to human safety. Human food can also lead to rumen acidosis or other digestive problems that can kill elk. Whether someone intentionally throws food to an elk or they forget to pick up their peanut hulls or chicken skins when they picnic in elk country, they are endangering the well being of all of the elk and other visitors alike.
* Stay in or close to your vehicle when elk are nearby. When you drive the road in Cataloochee or Oconaluftee, the elk are never very far away. We ask that visitors remain on the roadway when elk are in the fields. Viewing elk near your vehicle can provide you with a safe place to retreat to should one approach you. Also, please do not stop or park in the road. Rather, pull your vehicle off to the side of the road whenever possible to allow other traffic to flow freely.
* Be patient. Whether you are trying to get that picture perfect elk moment on film or just take a scenic drive through Cataloochee Valley patience is the key to everyone enjoying their time here.