Tennessee Elk Update

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It has been about 150 years since elk wandered throughout Tennessee. Early records indicated that elk were abundant in the state prior to being settled by European explores and colonists. As these settlers moved westward the elk population declined.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) decided to reintroduce elk to the state in the late 1990’s. Part of the Agency’s mission is to restore extirpated wildlife when and where it is biologically and sociologically feasible. The states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Kentucky have also restored elk. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park has restored elk within the park in North Carolina.

The project received the needed funding and support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). Their mission is to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat. They have more that 150,000 members and are based out of Missoula, Montana. Tennessee has seven chapters through out the state.

Several partners have been involved with the project and contributed by doing the things they do best. The partners include the Rocky Mountain Elk foundation, Parks Canada, Campbell County Outdoor Recreation Association, Tennessee Wildlife Federation, University of Tennessee and the U.S. Forest Service and TWRA. Recently, the Sarfari Club International (SCI) and the Chattanooga Chapter of SCI have also assisted with funding.

The goals of the Tennessee elk restoration project are:

  • Restore elk to a portion of their native range where compatible with other land uses and where local public support is demonstrated.
  • Develop a self-sustaining elk herd capable of providing hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities.
  • Minimize conflicts between elk and humans.
  • Minimize potential for introduction of diseases that are harmful to livestock and wildlife.

On December 19, 2000, fifty elk where obtained from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada and released on the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area in Campbell county. Since that time three other releases, (2001, 2002, 2003) have taken place with a total of 167 elk being released. The 2003 elk were obtained from the U. S. Forest Service Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky but originally came from Elk Island in Canada. All releases have taken place in Royal Blue and Sundquist WMA.

TWRA has established an “elk zone” consisting of 670,000 acres located in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee. The zone includes portions of five counties, Morgan, Scott, Campbell, Anderson and Claiborne. This zone will be managed to enhance the elk population and elk habitat. The desired elk population is between 1,400 and 2,000 elk in the zone.

The University of Tennessee (UT), Department of Wildlife, Forestry and Fisheries have conducted research on the elk and the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital monitors the health of the herd. An Elk Health Monitoring and Management Advisory Board has been established to provide expertise to TWRA and the Tennessee state veterinarian on future acquisitions of elk.

One hundred-sixty elk were originally radio collared to monitor their movements. Graduate students from UT conducted research on food habits and the telemetry data is currently being evaluated. This data should be completed fall 2006. Forty to fifty elk are currently radio collared.

Elk calving has been monitored for the last three summers to see if the elk were reproducing. A total of 20 calves were found in 2003, with 24 and 37 being found in 2004 and 2005. This is only a fraction of the calves actually being born.

Habitat improvements are continuing on the WMA’s to provide elk with the requirements they need to thrive. Food plots, clearings, timber operations waterholes and the like are being developed. A management plan for the Cumberland Mountains is being developed.

A wildlife viewing area is established on Hatfield Knob that allows the public to watch the animals.

Efforts are being taken to census the elk herd to get an estimate of the total population. These will include ground and aerial based census routes to be conducted this fall and winter 2006 and beyond.