When Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials began introducing elk a decade ago, biologists thought coyotes would be the herd’s main predator.
But with every calving season, black bears proved to be a bigger problem.
In 2005, the park documented the first cases of black bears searching the fields of Cataloochee Valley to prey on newborn elk. The problem got so bad that from 2006 through 2008, wildlife officials trapped bears that were active in Cataloochee and released them at the west end of the Smokies -- far enough so that by the time the bears made their way back to their home range, the elk calves were old enough to fend for themselves.
Today, park officials no longer trap and relocate bears from Cataloochee during the calving season, yet calf survival continues to improve.
“We now have a lot of cows giving birth that were born in Cataloochee,” said elk management specialist Joe Yarkovich. “They’ve learned to protect and hide their calves better from predators.”
Last year, 25 elk calves were born and they all survived, bringing the park’s elk herd up to approximately 135 animals.
This year, biologists found their first newborn elk calf on June 1 to kick off the 2011 calving season.
“We’re optimistic about having another good year for herd recruitment,” Yarkovich said. “Used to be, when a bear went into the fields with calves, the cows would just stand there and look. Now, the calf’s mother or a group of them come up and chase the bear clear out of the field.”
The Smokies elk restoration program began in 2001 with the release of 25 elk, followed by 27 released in 2002. Those animals came from Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, in Kentucky, and Elk Island National Park, in Alberta, Can. Plans for a third release in 2003 were canceled because of concerns in North Carolina over chronic wasting disease.
The herd’s biggest killer has been a parasitic brain worm that is lethal to elk but seldom harms white-tailed deer. To date, the elk have shown no signs of chronic wasting disease or brucellosis.
The park now is transitioning from the experimental reintroduction phase to long-term elk management. Biologists say the herd now is self-sustaining and should require no further reintroductions. Collars still are placed on the newborns and on selected female elk when they reach 1 year of age to help track their movements and mortality.
Black bears aren’t just looking for elk calves in the Cataloochee fields in June -- they’re also looking for ripe strawberries. While a large portion of the park’s elk remains in Cataloochee during the calving season, a growing number head to higher ground where temperatures are cooler and predator populations not as dense.
It all started with an elk cow from Kentucky with ear tag No. 15. During the early days of the reintroduction, cow No. 15 lost her first calf to a black bear in a Cataloochee field. The next year, she lost another calf to a bear, this time in the woods of Cataloochee Valley. In 2004, cow No. 15 traveled seven miles to have her calf on Balsam Mountain, and by doing so, blazed a path that other pregnant cows would follow.
“Cow No. 15 was the first to explore that area,” Yarkovich said. “She showed the way.”
Over the years, the elks’ diet has changed to reflect their new surroundings. Biologists say the elk are utilizing more acorns than in the early days of the reintroduction, and that because of this, the bulls are developing bigger antlers.
About 140,000 vehicles drive through Cataloochee Valley annually. Most visitors arrive during the fall mating season when the bull elk bugle and fight among themselves to claim their harem of cows.
The elk project was launched with strong support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and this spring, after the remains of bull elk No. 16 were found outside the park in North Carolina, various groups and individuals chipped in money to create a reward pool of $10,000 to help catch the poachers.
“The elk have a ton of public support, and that’s a big reason to be optimistic about the herd’s future,” Yarkovich said.
(Morgan Simmons is a reporter for The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee.)