published Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Smokies elk now in review phase

Experimental part of the project ended last year


by Dan Cook
  • photo
    Great Smoky Mountains National Park photo The elk herd in the Cataloochee Section of the Smokies numbers close to 100.

As the chosen five get ready for Tennessee’s inaugural elk hunt Oct. 19-23 in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area near the Kentucky border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park staffers are evaluating data from their own elk herd.

The experimental phase of the elk project in the Cataloochee section on the park’s North Carolina side ended in 2008.

“We will not be bringing any more elk to the park,” said Joe Yarkovich, who’s in charge of managing the Smokies herd. “Even if we wanted to do so, we couldn’t. North Carolina has a ban on any more as a precautionary measure against disease.”

The Cataloochee elk number about 100, with about five or six dying every year. It appears to be a sustainable population, which park officials wanted. Yarkovich said they would have been fine with “about 75 to 90.”

Bears were thought to have preyed on young ones during the first five years of the project, so officials began trapping and relocating the bears to the Cades Cove section during elk calving time. Resulting population growth figures indicated the measure had helped.

Bears no longer are being relocated for elk reasons, Yarkovich said, since they now appear to stay away from the calves.

“When a calf is born, the mother will bed it down, feeding it early and late in the day,” Yarkovich explained. “She won’t go near it during the day. This will last a week to 10 days before the calf is big enough to join the herd.”

Elk usually sleep in grassy areas during the night, retreating into the forests early in the morning. They return to the fields later in the day.

Mostly they stay inside Cataloochee, Yarkovich said. One group of elk took up residence in the Cherokee area, however, and one of those was killed by a motor vehicle. Another group stays in the White Oak area of the adjacent Cherokee National Forest.

Late in the day is the best viewing time at Cataloochee, Yarkovich said, noting that the morning window of opportunity is very narrow. A paved-and-dirt road leads into the area near Maggie Valley.

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