Wapiti Wonderland


It was a glittery, chilly mid-May morning, the sky brilliant blue, the trees fully leafed out in the electric green of early spring. A northwest wind herded puffy white clouds eastward as I crested the Cataloochee Divide to begin the serpentine crawl into Cataloochee Valley.

I was on my way to visit Jennifer Murrow, a wildlife biologist, University of Tennessee Ph.D. student, and the caretaker of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s elk herd. The elk are part of a 5-year experimental reintroduction program aimed at discovering whether elk, extirpated from the Southern Appalachians through overhunting and habitat loss, can be reestablished as permanent Park residents.

Until April of last year, when the first 25 elk were released from a 3-acre acclimatization pen they had lived in since January, elk hadn’t been seen wandering free in Tennessee for 150 years, or in North Carolina for 200. The first Cataloochee herd was augmented last summer by the birth of five calves.

An additional 27 adults were released this past April. More calves are expected in early June; Murrow and her crew of technicians, who track the elk daily, think 10-12 elk cows are pregnant. A third and final reintroduction of adults will occur next spring. The day I visited, the herd consisted of 51 elk — 47 adults and 4 surviving yearlings.

Cataloochee Valley, at the Park’s eastern end, is a part of GSMNP most visitors never see. The only access roads are long, curvy, steep and, in places, one lane and unpaved. Homesteaded in the 19th century — and hunted and fished by the Cherokee before that — the Valley’s a furrow amid a welter of mountains, with densely forested flanks carved by clear, rushing streams.

A few remnants of the flourishing settlement that pre-dated the park are preserved: a small white frame church, a two-room schoolhouse and a few of the handsome early 20th century farmsteads that once filled the quiet valley. A series of long, relatively narrow fields flank the dirt road on the valley floor. It is in these fields that the elk appear in early morning, and in the slanting golden light cast by the setting sun. For most of the day, they retreat to the woods, to browse or bed down.

“They make their own trails,” says bio-technician Elena Sachs. “A little elk highway system is developing out there in the woods.”

Radioed In

Cataloochee’s elk don’t look particularly wild. Radio collars encircle their necks, and, like domestic cattle, they sport numbered ear tags. (The initial herd, imported from Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky, wears yellow tags; this year’s introductions, from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada, wear white). But the animals are wild—and large. A full-grown male is 5 feet tall at the shoulder, may weigh 700 pounds and support a 40-pound rack of antlers. (Elk cows, who don’t grow antlers, weigh in at about 500 pounds.)

“We had a big problem with visitors in the beginning, though it’s getting much better,” Murrow says. “People are so out of touch with the natural world that they want to approach the elk, to touch and feed them. The local people, they understand they’re wild. It’s the visitors who live in a cement world who don’t. Our signs and educational efforts have helped.” Posted signs along the road, and information sheets on the “Return of the Elk,” remind sightseers to keep their distance.

Murrow, a Charleston, SC, native who earned an undergraduate degree in wildlife biology at Clemson and a master’s from UT (her Master’s work was with black bears), has been at work — basically a “24-hour-a-day, 7 days-a-week” proposition— on the elk project since December, 2000. The dissertation she’ll write four years from now will be “huge,” covering every aspect of the elk experiment.

“We have to determine two things,” she says. “Whether elk can survive in the Park, and whether the Park can survive the elk.”

Though Murrow and I were to spend the day together, a minor elk crisis forced a last-minute change in plans. “I have to leave in early afternoon,” she told me when I arrived. “We have two elk missing. We haven’t been able to pick up their radio signals for several days. It probably means they’ve gone further into the Park, which would be good. I’ll be excited if that’s what’s happened. But I’ve got to find out.”

Finding out meant flying over the Park, something Murrow is supposed to do once a week, but is often prevented by weather. “The weather here is terrible for flying,” she says, “but flying is the one way we can pinpoint each elk’s location.” She and her technicians track the elk daily on the ground “for survival.”

Each animal’s radio collar emits a signal picked up on different channels on the receivers the technicians carry. The speed of the signals are keyed to motion, and speed up if an elk hasn’t moved in two hours. “You don’t want to hear that fast beep-beep-beep,” Sachs says. “It could mean that the collar has come off — we’ve had that happen — or it could mean the elk is dead. When we hear it, it means we have to go out and find the animal immediately. If it’s dead, we’ve got to get it out of there right away, get it necropsied, to find out why it died.”

More Births Than Deaths

Thus far, mortality has been limited. Two members of the original herd — one that strayed into a “No Elk Zone” near a dairy farm, and another that developed a brain disease — had to be euthanized. One of last year’s calves, “already in pretty bad shape, with a broken jaw and the beginning of pneumonia,” was taken last summer, probably by a coyote, Sachs says. Three of the females released this spring, two of them pregnant, died a few days after release. Results from necropsies still aren’t in.

Ground telemetry is complicated by “bounce” the Valley’s varied topography creates — and is simplified by the fact that elk are herd animals who tend to stay in groups. The operative words here are “tend to.” One adult female has been off by herself, over near Cherokee, “for awhile,” and her calf is also alone, outside Park boundaries. Both, however, have remained within a designated “buffer zone,” non-crop land adjacent to the Park. (Murrow’s flyover located the two missing elk, a male and a female, near Cherokee, I subsequently learned.)

Most of the elk have stayed close to where they were released. “The furthest they have ever gone is seven to eight miles, which is nothing for elk,” Murrow says. “Right now, 99 percent of them are within three miles of where they started out.” For daily tracking, Murrow’s crew drives up and down the valley, and, when necessary, to more distant “good high spots” — The Swag, the Purchase, Mt. Sterling and Spruce Mountain — to pick up signals.

“There are certain places we stop because we know where the elk hang out,” Sachs says. “On good days, we can track them all in a few hours. But it can take all day. And there are always five or six we have to drive an extra hour for.”

Tracking has been more difficult since the Canadian elk, who are not used to people and are much more reclusive than the original herd, were released. “They have moved to places where it is harder to pick up their signals,” Sachs says, and have almost never been seen. Daily tracking will be harder still when the pregnant females leave the herd to calve.

“We’ll be monitoring the elk heavily in June and July,” Murrow says. “That’s our hardest season, my most stressful time.”

Eyes (& Ears) In The Sky

While ground tracking is designed to make sure none of the elk has died, up in the air, Murrow tracks for location, “so we can determine habitat use, home range size and movement patterns,” she says. She does her flying in a Cessna 182, piloted by J.B. Marshall and based in Morristown, TN. The Cessna, “a tiny fixed wing plane I get violently ill in,” is outfitted with antennae on the struts.

“Flying is the easiest way to locate elk. I’ll find every one of them today while I’m up, but I’ll concentrate on the missing ones first. On a good day, we can be down in an hour and a half, but it usually takes two or three hours.”

In addition to tracking and caretaking the elk, Murrow’s responsibilities include a massive vegetative study to monitor the elks’ impact on the Park’s flora, particularly its rare and endangered plants. For that study, 55 exclosures (12×12-meter fenced areas designed to exclude the elk) have been erected as study plots: 10 in fields, 45 in wooded areas, in a variety of habitats (north and south facing slopes, cove forests, etc.).

“We chose locations based on land form, plant diversity, and elk use,” Murrow says. Plots of equal size immediately adjacent to the exclosures will be monitored to gauge effects of trampling and feeding. “We’ll be measuring species density, cover and diversity to find out whether there are differences when you keep the elk away,” Murrow says. “Today we’re working out the sampling techniques we’ll use for the next four years.”

Helping Murrow and her crew — Sachs, Brandon Wear and Wylie Paxton (a botanist whose major responsibility will be the vegetative analysis) — was National Park Service botanist Janet Rock. We crawled under the fence around one exclosure and walked carefully around the inside perimeter to minimize human trampling.

Using tape measures and a pole, the biologists were laying out transects and recording the names and height of every plant that touched the pole at one meter increments along the tape. This is the procedure for field plots; in less densely vegetated forest plots, “we look at the trees and anything in line with the tapes,” Murrow says. Forest plots will be sampled once a year, in June/July; field plots twice, in May and August, to measure effects on cool and warm season grasses.

Because Murrow, Sachs and Wear are wildlife biologists, not botanists — and grasses, rushes and sedges are difficult even for botanists to identify — discussions with Rock included plant identification as well as procedural matters.

Though a red wolf reintroduction at GSMNP a few years ago ultimately failed, park officials hope the elk can become permanent residents. “Our policy is to restore native plant and animal communities that were extirpated by human influence,” says park spokesperson Nancy Gray.

Reintroducing elk would “fill a niche that we haven’t had in many years, a large herbivore to aid in the Park’s natural maintenance. We hope the elk will move onto the grassy balds and into areas where prescribed burns have been used, to graze and maintain biodiversity through natural processes.”

Elk Range Reduced

Elk, or ‘wapiti’ as the Algonquin Indians knew them, are members of the deer family whose range once covered most of North America, with the exception of Florida and Alaska. Directly descended from Asian red deer, they are believed to have crossed the Bering land bridge to North America, perhaps 120,000 years ago.

Today, they occupy less than a tenth of their historic range. Their estimated North American population of 1 million is about a tenth of what it was before European settlement.

Subsisting primarily on grasses, forbs, acorns, bark, leaves and the buds of shrubs and trees, elk are ruminants, with multi-chambered stomachs that allow them to extract nutrition from difficult-to-digest vegetable matter. Several of their natural predators (wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats and bears) have been extirpated from the Park.

“We don’t know yet whether elk will be able to sustain their population here, or will multiply like white-tailed deer, or do something in between,” Murrow says.

An elk’s appearance changes dramatically with the seasons. It sheds its coat twice annually. Summer coats consist of a single, thin layer of copper-colored hair. Tan and brown winter coats are two layered, and five times warming than summer ones. Long, thick guard hairs cover a dense, woolly undercoat.

Both sexes sport large beige rump patches, but only the bulls grow antlers. They shed them in March and immediately begin growing a new pair. Antlers grow with astonishing rapidity, as much as an inch a day in summer. Until rutting season, they’re covered with velvet, which the bulls rub off against trees, shrubs and the ground in preparation for fall rut. The rubbing also releases pent up energy and spreads their scent around.

During rut, bulls challenge one another for dominance of “harems” of up to 20 cows, locking horns, shoving and bugling, but not fighting to the death. Their bugling calls are described as among the most haunting of natural sounds, on a par with the howl of wolves and calls of loons. Cows judge a bull’s fitness by his bugle, the size of his antlers and body.

Mating begins when cows come into heat, and while estrus lasts less than 24 hours, each cow may go through four estrus cycles in a single season. Gestation takes 8 1/2 months. Calves weigh 30-35 pounds at birth, and are born with coats spotted like fawns. In the Smokies, they’ll be wearing radio collars as soon as Murrow and her technicians can track them down.

The Park’s partners in the elk reintroduction project, in addition to U-T, are Parks Canada, Great Smoky Mountain Natural History Association, Friends of the Smokies, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Resources Division, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. For comprehensive information about elk natural history, visit the latter’s website at www.rmef.org.

Elk Facts

• Vegetarians: Elk eat mainly plant matter and digest it through multi-chambered stomachs like a cow

• Size Matters: Elk cows size up a bull’s fitness for mating by the size of his antlers and body, as well as his bugle

• Blue Velvet: The velvet covering on elk antlers begins to fall off in August or September, helped by rubbing on saplings. Some believe elk also leave a scent behind from their facial glands during rubs


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