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Elk population continues to grow slow & steady, 20 years after reintroduction into Smokies

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    GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, North Carolina (WLOS) — It’s been 20 years since elk were reintroduced into Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).

Officials with the National Park Service and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation released 25 elk in February of 2001. The next year they released another 27. It started out as an experiment to bring back the native species which was run out by European settlers and overhunting in the late 1700’s.

Fast forward two decades and local wildlife biologists said the population, now somewhere around 200, is slowly growing.

“It feels pretty good,” said Joe Yarkovich, a wildlife biologist for GSMNP. “It’s nice to see them back out on the landscape.”

He said in the fall he can hear bulls bugling outside his front door.

The initial release of the elk was a test, Yarkovich said, and at first, the elk struggled with predators.

“The calves were mostly getting killed by black bears,” he said.

Eventually the elk got smarter, and at the end of the first nine years of the project, biologists called the reintroduction a success.

Yarkovich said there are a number of factors working in the elks’ favor including a protected environment, good food sources and a slow and steady growth rate.

“We’ve got a lot of public support for it, all of those factors have really allowed them to grow and become a new symbol of the Smokies,” he said.

Over the years the elk have had some colorful encounters with humans. For example, a couple years ago an elk got tangled in someone’s hammock in Haywood County.

“This is a typical elk collar that we put on a cow elk,” said Justin McVey, showing some of the tools he uses as a district biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. He’s involved with elk management.

“We work a lot on habitat management and that’s something that is lot different than 20 years ago when elk were reintroduced, there wasn’t a lot of elk habitat,” said McVey.

He said they are currently working on getting a formal count of the elk population.

McVey said the elk in Western North Carolina are divided by a lot of smaller sub-herds that don’t interbreed. He said that makes the topic of hunting a tricky one. Right now hunting elk is illegal.

However McVey said if their count comes out bigger than a couple hundred and herds are big enough, hunting could be something we see in the future.

“That’s one of our goals is to have a hunting season, but we don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” he said.

To help keep the elk around for another 20 years and beyond, biologists said there are some things we can do to be responsible neighbors.

Most importantly, observe elk from a distance of at least 50 yards, don’t feed them and if they approach you, back up and give them room.

McVey said we’ll never have a huge herd of elk here. However, biologists expect the population to steadily continue to grow.

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