Samuel Hobbs photo
Bull elk sparring
The lead up to fall mating season is an exciting time in Cataloochee, as bull elk spar over harems and give off their signature bugles. The hierarchy can be in constant flux for several weeks as bulls vie for the best females.
On a frosty January morning in 2001, a crowd of 300 people gathered on a long, wooden catwalk in Cataloochee Valley waiting to witness history.
As the people jockeyed for a better view, park rangers paced the railing of a large pen below and called for quiet along the row of eager spectators. On cue, one of the rangers lifted the latch of a tailgate on a large horse trailer. One elk after another thundered out into their new home in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As the first hooves touched down on the soil that day, Ken Wilson grappled with the enormity of the moment.
“Being a lover of wildlife, I have a deep appreciation for all the wild creatures of our mountains. But to bring home a species that had been extirpated and to think it was once again going to roam these mountains was so exciting,” said Wilson, a nature photographer and former newspaper publisher in Waynesville.
Elk were vanquished from the Southern Appalachians by over-hunting in the mid-1800s. The park’s long view to restore native creatures — including the brook trout, river otter and peregrine falcon over the years — eventually led to elk. The effort got underway in the late-1990s. While park rangers scouted elk herds from Kentucky to Canada, groups like Friends of the Smokies and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation got to work raising money for the project.
“There was so much hope that it would be successful,” said Wilson, who documented the process through photographs.
That hope was short-lived, however. The elk had trouble adapting to their new homes. For the first several years, their numbers stagnated and even slipped slightly. Calves that survived were barely enough to replace the adult elk that died off, let alone enough to grow the herd.
The park had released 52 elk between 2001 and 2002. By 2005, the herd numbered just 50. Their future was fragile.
Black bears posed the primary threat to the elk herd. Half or more of the newborn elk were being killed by predators, primarily the bears. Add in those who died of natural causes, and calf survival was as low as 30 percent one year.
When a calf is born, the mother hides it in the leaves or grass while she forages, returning periodically to nurse until it gets big enough to join her. During those first weeks of life, bears were swooping in and wreaking havoc. Initially, it was purely accidental on the bears’ part.
“The calving season coincides with the time of year that strawberries ripen. For decades, bears had been going into the fields and roaming and looking for strawberries, and now lo-and-behold, they were finding elk calves,” said Stephen Dobey, an elk biologist who oversaw the initial herd.
The following year, however, bears began systematically combing the fields with more than just strawberries in mind.
“When those calves are lying there on the ground they are very vulnerable. It was just like picking up candy,” said Kim DeLozier, the park’s chief wildlife ranger.
Where the elk came from, there were no bears. They had no idea their calves were at risk. Many of them learned from one season to the next, however, and park biologists had the rare opportunity to watch Darwin’s theory of evolution play out before their eyes.
“One elk lost her calf three years in a row and got to the point where she said ‘This is getting ridiculous,’” Dobey said. Some females began taking to the woods to give birth, where their calves would be more camouflaged. They also began proactively chasing bears out of the field.
But as the elk got smarter, so did the bears. They began tracking the mothers when they went to nurse and learned where they were hiding their newborns.
“Bears are very smart animals,” Dobey said.
Researchers hit a low point when four elk calves were killed in less than a week in 2005. One day Dobey watched from the edge of the field as a black bear move in for the kill. He wanted to run screaming toward the bear and shoo it away, as if scolding a cat about to pounce on a song bird.
It got park biologists thinking. If they could remove bears from the equation just long enough for the calves to get their legs under them, maybe they would have a fighting chance.
So the following year in 2006, the park systematically rounded up the bears from Cataloochee just before calving season, hauled them to the opposite end of the park nearly 30 miles away and turned them loose.
The park’s strategy wrought controversy. What if the mixed-up bears never came back and Cataloochee was forever devoid of bears? Others believed a national park should not tinker with its ecology.
Park rangers, however, suspected the bear would quickly migrate back to their home base of Cataloochee, providing just enough hiatus for the newborn calves but not enough to disrupt bear distribution, said Joe Yarkovich, an elk researcher and park ranger stationed in Cataloochee.
The rangers tagged the bears to track when and if they returned. Yarkovich got a shock when the first one appeared just two weeks later.
“It made me think twice whether it would work out, whether we would be spinning our wheels taking them for a road trip and they would be right back,” Yarkovich said.
But the strategy did work. It took most bears a month or two to return. By then, elk calves were safely trotting alongside their mothers. Calf survival jumped to nearly 85 percent that year.
The park repeated the bear capture again in 2007 and 2008. But this year, with the herd now pushing 100 elk, the park will cease the bear relocation. The elk herd is stable enough to hold its own, Yarkovich said.
The elk suffered other setbacks in the early years. One was simply bad luck. Two out of three elk calves that survived were male, which didn’t bode well for the herd’s reproduction. And adult survival, while not poor, was not good either. It took a few years for the elk to become efficient foragers in their new habitat. A parasitic worm also took its toll on the herd.
The natural inclination of the bears to keep the herd in check has an upside, however.
“Before we brought the elk in, the general feeling from a lot of people was that the population was going to explode,” DeLozier said.
While that hasn’t been the case, the elk have spread out from Cataloochee over the years, with satellite groups taking up residence in Big Creek and Oconaluftee, and the occasional loner venturing outside the park to private land.
The growing ranks of elk bode well for the Cataloochee herd, although their home here is still officially considered an experiment. The park will decide this year whether the project should be deemed an official reintroduction of the species, pending a full environmental analysis. If the elk project doesn’t pass the test, the park would theoretically round them all up and send them packing. It is highly doubtful that will be the case, however.
“I get asked once a week, ‘Are they here to stay?’ and I reply that I can’t really say but it looks positive,” said Yarkovich. “I think the herd will still be here 100 years from now.”
That’s good news to Wilson, who has yet to tire of photographing them. He loves to wake up early and set out from Waynesville before day break. It is still dark as he follows the twisting gravel road over the Cataloochee Divide and slips into the valley on the other side. He stakes out a spot and waits.
“You gradually see the shadows and outlines of the herd emerge. You sit there and wait, waiting for the image to present itself. They are majestic animals,” Wilson said.
Elk enthusiasts keep coming
Elk watching, particularly on Sunday afternoon, is a cross between tailgating and a drive-in movie. Parked vehicles line the narrow road the length of Cataloochee Valley, staking out their spot well before dusk draws near. Children play tag. Grandparents recline in lawn chairs. Moms make sandwiches out of coolers. Photographers fiddle with their tripods. Some stretch out in the bed of their pick-up or clamber onto the roof of their van for a better view. The mood is friendly as tourists mingle up and down the mile-long line in anticipation of the first elk sighting.
Visitation to Cataloochee more than tripled following the elk release, from 70,000 visitors in 2000 to 214,000 by 2003 when visitation peaked.
“The interest in the elk out there is phenomenal,” said Jim Blyth of Maggie Valley, a member of the local chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which also helped fund the elk release. “People really love them.”
The elk’s lure has brought people to the Smokies who otherwise may not have ventured into the park.
“They start to appreciate the park as a whole and not just the elk,” said George Ivey, former director of development for Friends of the Smokies, which raised money to make the elk release possible.
The new-found interest in Cataloochee has put a strain on the otherwise quaint and historic valley, however. The valley lacked a full-time park ranger to police over-eager visitors from accosting the elk or driving into the fields. And the lack of a visitor center left no point of contact for the droves of tourists.
The park service, with help from Friends of the Smokies, launched a team of volunteers known as the Elk Bugle Corps in 2007. The elite corp of volunteers rove the valley floor and talk to visitors about the elk, reminding them of proper wildlife viewing etiquette and sharing information about the herd. They scoot up and down the valley road in a zero-emissions electric vehicle, funded in part by the Friends of Smokies, with a trunk of props in tow, including elk antlers. The Elk Bugle Corps comes in contact with thousands of visitors from all over the globe, teaching them about the elk and the wonders of the park.