You are here

Elk Population Growing at Great Smoky Mountains National Park


The elk population in Great Smoky is booming. NPS photo.

If the elk herd at Great Smoky Mountains National Park keeps growing like this, perhaps a gray wolf recovery program will be needed to keep the ungulates from over-grazing the park.

Seriously, though, since Great Smoky biologists first got into the elk recovery business in 2001 with 52 animals, the herd has grown to roughly 95, according to the latest estimates.

“This year’s calving season was another big success in terms of survival for the calves," says Joe Yarkovich, the park's elk project manager. "A total of 19 calves has been confirmed to have been born this year, the same number of calves born in 2007, but the survival rate this year was higher. This year 16 of the 19 calves born -- 84 percent -- are thought to be still alive, while last year only 13 of the 19 calves survived.

“If there is a downside this calving season, Ranger “Yarkovich continued, “the sex ratio of the calves born was fairly poor from the standpoint of herd growth. Of the 16 surviving calves this year, only five are female, 10 are male, and the sex of the last one is yet to be determined. Ultimately, the number of breeding females in the herd will have the greatest effect on their long-term success, so we would always like to see more females being born.”

Of the calves that did not survive, Ranger Yarkovich said that one appeared to have died from natural causes while the other two were never found, so they could have died of natural causes or been taken by predators.

During the first few years of the experiment, calf survival had averaged only around 50 percent, due almost entirely to predation by bears. Biologists believe that the improved survival rates are due to a combination of improved parenting by the cows and predator management efforts that began in 2006.

Each year since 2006 bears were trapped in and around Cataloochee Valley during the late-May to early July calving season, then radio-collared and relocated to the Twenty Mile area located in the western portion of the park in North Carolina. The bears’ movements were tracked after they are released and, even though a number of them returned to Cataloochee, biologists believe that that by the time they got back the young calves were mobile enough to travel safely with their mothers.

Biologists say that there were five adult elk that died during the year. Of these, three died of undetermined, but apparently natural, causes. One was struck by a vehicle along Big Cove Road in Cherokee and was euthanized as a result of his injuries. Finally, a yearling bull was found dead in Little Cataloochee on November 5, but necropsy results and disease tests on the animal have not been returned yet.

“We expect 2009 to be another exciting year for the park’s elk program.” says Ranger Yarkovich. "In terms of calf production there are several young cows that should give birth to their first calves next summer, so we have the potential for another record-setting year for herd expansion. And, next fall the rut should be quite a contest as we have quite a few bulls which are nearing ten years of age, which is when they develop the largest antlers. So if the food supply is good we have the potential for even more spectacular racks to be seen next year.

"There are also a few rather aggressive younger bulls that will be gaining weight and antler mass, so competition during the 2009 rut should certainly be exciting.”

Park biologists say that winter elk viewing is best during early mornings and late afternoons but that on the colder days the elk can often be seen in the open fields all day long, particularly when it is overcast. They caution that narrow, winding, gravel Cataloochee Road is frequently icy, even when there is no snow, so drivers need to drive carefully.

During 2009 park managers plan to publish an Environmental Assessment that will lay out all the findings of research that was conducted during the experimental release and will invite comments regarding any concerns which the public may have. Concurrent with the EA they will be producing an Elk Management Plan that will include a long-term strategy for managing elk in the Smokies and the park.


Please bring back the Red Wolves. I seen a red wof as a teenager & have never forgotten it. It was the most memorable event in my life. Sooner or later the ungulate population will get too large and offset the natural order & huntin IS NOT THE ANSWER!!!!


That's great news. Hopefully, it'll work out better than the white deer experiment in Point Reyes.

What "white deer" experiment at Point Reyes?

Actually, they're not "white deer" at all, but rather non-native Axis and Fallow deer (and the Fallow deer can appear white in color). Axis deer are native to India and Sri Lanka, while Fallow deer are more commonly at home in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor.

In short, both were introduced to the Point Reyes area back in the 1940s, before the national seashore existed in name, by a local landowner. Park officials have a plan to remove all these non-native deer by 2021. You can learn more at this site.

In the fall of 2008, the Seashore began focusing solely on contraceptive methods to control the non-native deer population. Over the next few years, the park's ambitious deer contraception program will involve veterinarians and wildlife contraception experts and utilize the most advanced techniques to ensure that the remaining deer herd is safely and humanely controlled. Park biologists and wildlife experts have determined that application of fertility control methods to the estimated 100 - 150 remaining deer over the next 5 years will likely result in a non-reproductive remnant herd. The non-native deer will not reproduce and will live out their natural lives within the Seashore over the next 10-15 years. The Seashore's contraception program is one of the largest studies ever attempted with free-ranging wild deer.

See Friends of the White Deer

The Park has a contractor slaughtering the Fallow or Axis deer introduced to the Point Reyes area in 1948. The former Channel Islands unit superintendent is speaking out.

Thanks for the clarification. I guess I must have heard the term "white deer" used in reference to the Point Reyes' axis deer and fallow deer at some point or other; I just don't remember it. (Is there some vernacular word term for the park's Tule elk, too?) The info Kurt furnished about the use of contraceptive technology for this wildlife population control need is absolutely fascinating. Does anyone know about the status of the contraceptive program for the feral horses at Cape Lookout National Seashore?

The CBS News affiliate in San Fransisco reported on Jan. 28, 2008: Controversial Deer Slaughter Resumes At Pt. Reyes

"Hunters from White Buffalo Inc., an East Coast company, shot between 8 and 10 fallow deer Monday morning in the Point Reyes National Seashore before weather conditions curtailed Monday's planned removal of the non-native deer species from the national park.

The eradication is intended to preserve the park's native black-tailed deer and tule elk populations.

John Dell'Osso, spokesman for the Point Reyes National Seashore, said the deer were shot in the Limantour wilderness area of the park. The deer are shot once in the brain by sharpshooters and additional lethal removal efforts this week are weather dependant, Dell'Osso said.

The extermination of non-native axis and fallow deer began when an experimental contraceptive drug was used on 80 deer last summer. Since then 400 deer have been shot, Dell'Osso said.
Dell'Osso said helicopters are used to herd the deer to other locations and shooting the deer in the brain is a humane lethal method of removing the deer.

The National Park Service approved a plan a year ago to get rid of 1,200 non-native deer, claiming they were a threat to the native species in the area.
The Park Service contracted Connecticut-based White Buffalo, which killed about 400 of the deer in the summer and fall. The company returned last Friday to continue the job."

I have heard that elk and coyote were also introduced into Mt Rogers National Receartion Area. Can any confirm this? We live 6 miles from the park and coyote sighting in the last few years have skyrocketed.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide