Elk Herd Adapts to Protect Calves

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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.


hunter25's picture

This is a good story here and

This is a good story here and I'm glad to read that this herd is doing well and on the road to building itself up to higher numbers. I'm wondering where they brought these elk in from in the first place thought that they had to learn this type of behavior. If they came from any of the normal places you would have thought that that would have been ingrained pattern for the calving season. At least they were smart enought o figure it out though and have learned to migrate for the season and in some cases stand up and fight for the survival of the the herd. They almost sounded like domestic elk that were released into the wild the way they were acting at first.

arrowflipper's picture

story of success

Wow, what a wonderful story of success!  It's great to read accounts like this where the reintroduction of an animal is so successful.  Throughout history, environments are constantly changing and animals are constantly adapting to that change.  One might think that with the encroachment of humans into an area, the wildlife would move on.  That's not always the case.  In fact, in some cases, it's almost the opposite.  Deer have found easy pickings in some residential areas and have moved in.

I wonder what the calf mortality and the predator situation was where these elk were transplanted from?  There must not have been a lot of bears in the calving area where they came from.  I found it very interesting that it didn't take too long for these elk to change their habits and move to safer ground.  That's called adaptation.  We tend not to think of animals having the ability to reason, but it sure seems like these elk did just that.  They reasoned that their calves were being killed in this area and that if they moved it might not happen. 

I am also pleased that the public is in favor of this program.  Without widespread support, transplants like this are a lot harder.  Poaching would be more prevalent and the support to find those responsible wouldn't be there.  I sure hope they find whoever it was that killed that bull.

Another highly successful transplant story is that of turkeys.  I hunted for years in Washington without ever seeing a wild turkey.  They just didn't exist.  After they were introduced (maybe re-introduced) into different areas of our state, they slowly started to increase.  Farmers loved seeing them and would feed them during the winter.  I'm sure this provided a jump start to the now thriving flocks of them.  The farmers aren't quite as excited about them any more, but they are here to stay.  We have large, healthy populations of three different turkeys here in our state and hunting seasons keep being extended and more opportunities given to harvest one of the large birds.

Transplanting works if the animals are given a chance.  What a great success story this is of the elk.  Good for them.