For the past decade, Great Smoky Mountains National Park biologists and staff worked to restore a permanent elk herd to the park's rumpled mountains. So successful were those efforts that they've removed the "experimental" tag from the herd and adopted a long-range management plan for the elk.
The management plan was signed off on by David Vela, the park's regional director, on October 20.
In June 2010, the park published an environmental assessment outlining the findings of an 8-year experimental elk release (2001-2008). The purpose of the EA was to determine the most appropriate and feasible approach to manage the existing elk population, currently totaling around 140 animals.
The primary objective under the preferred alternative of adaptive management plan is to maintain an elk population within the park that is self-sustaining and allows only acceptable impacts to park resources.
“By creating a framework of flexibility, park managers can employ a variety of management strategies to deal with a range of behaviors with the goal of preventing ‘unacceptable’ conditions as described in the EA,” said Great Smoky Dale Ditmanson.
Research findings from the experimental elk release indicated that the elk population was sustainable, had minimal impacts on the park’s resources, and human-elk conflicts were manageable.
Monitoring of the elk herd will continue; however, those activities will be scaled back from efforts employed during the research phase. A portion of the elk population will continue to be fitted with radio-collars and tracked, primarily the adult females and all newborn calves. Vegetation will be monitored to determine if the elk have an unacceptable impact on native plant communities.
In addition, the management plan transitions responsibility for elk management issues outside the park to the appropriate tribal, state, or federal agency with jurisdiction over wildlife on those lands. Park staff will continue to work cooperatively and provide guidance and training regarding elk management, where feasible, to any agency requesting support.