I just received my copy of the fall issue of the Smokies Guide in the mail yesterday. One of the lead stories was a report on the elk population in the park. The article stated that the elk population has grown to 95, and the animals have spread from the Cataloochee Valley. There are now reports of individuals or groups of elk in Oconaluftee, Cosby, Balsam Mountain, White Oak, the Cherokee Indian Reservation and up on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Elk were reintroduced to the park in February of 2001. Originally, 25 were transplanted to the Cataloochee Valley from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Another 27 were added in 2002 from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada.
The program was originally set-up as a five year experiment to ensure that elk could survive in the area on their own. Because the elk population failed to grow during the original five-year period, the experiment was extended another three years. Researchers didn’t have enough data on elk movements, mortality and human interaction to support a long-term decision at that point.
The extended experiment will expire later this year. At that time, the University of Tennessee will provide the park with research information to help determine whether the experiment failed or succeeded. Ultimately, this will decide whether the elk stay or go.
However, at a public meeting earlier in the year, Great Smoky Mountain National Park Wildlife Manager Joe Yarkovich said "I will say unofficially that it's a success. We're looking pretty good. We've finally got the number of animals we wanted. We’ve got a ton of public support. Calves are hitting the ground and surviving. We're in pretty good shape for the future."
Keeping elk in the park is important on many levels. Not only are they a draw for visitors, but they help to complete the natural ecosystem in the Smoky Mountains.
There was one other piece of news that I thought was pretty interesting. Over the next couple of years, the Cades Cove Loop Road will be repaved. The article didn’t give a specific timeframe, but this is great news. This will make bicycling on road bikes much more enjoyable.
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