Elk Herd Adapts to Protect Calves
In 2001 Elk were reintroduced into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At first 25 were reintroduced, then 27 the following year. In the beginning the wildlife officials believed coyotes would be the worst predators the elk would have to face, but the biggest challenge came from black bears.
The black bears would be in the area searching for strawberries, but find calves. Wildlife officials would actually trap and move the bears out of the area of the calves, far enough away that by the time the bears did come back, the calves would be able to defend themselves. In the early years of reintroduction, one female tagged #15 lost a calf to a black bear in Cataloochee field. The following year she lost her calf to a black bear in Cataloochee valley. In 2004, #15 trekked 7 miles to Balsam Mountain to have her calf, this one survived. Other elk followed the route and have been able to increase their numbers, and now calf mortality is not as high. Last year 25 calves were born, and 25 survived. The elk learned through trial and error to move to higher elevations with less predators during calving season. With this migration, their food source has changed, they are eating more acorns which has given the bull elk bigger antlers.
"We're optimistic about having another good year for herd recruitment," Elk management specialist Joe 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 elk have around 135 in their herd now, and should be self sustaining.
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation supported the reintroduction of the elk to the Great Smokies. There is a lot of public support in the area as well. This spring remains of bull elk #16 were found outside the park. RMEF, other groups and individuals were able to pool $10,000 for a reward 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. From Knoxville News Sentinel.