For nearly two centuries, the mountains went silent. Where once there was a mournful cry echoing through the Appalachian hillsides, the song of the wapiti had disappeared. Wapiti is the Shawnee word for elk, and for thousands of years, the eastern elk ranged throughout the expansive Appalachian range. But, this magnificent animal, larger and more brazen than its Canadian counterparts, was hunted to extinction by the mid 19th century. The elk was the most targeted and prized meat of early European settlers in what is now the eastern United States. Furthermore, the eastern elk’s bold attitude, a product of its enormous size and strength, made them easier targets than whitetail deer and bison, which learned to avoid human settlements. The eastern elk disappeared from the Carolinas by the mid-1700s, from Tennessee by the early 1800s, and in 1870, the last of this subspecies was killed in Pennsylvania.
As the 20th century rolled around, a new era of conservation and ecological conscience was on the rise. The overhunting of the eastern elk was seen as a gross abuse of human advantage in hunting wild game, and early measures were made to bring elk back to the eastern United States. Pennsylvania was the first state to do so, buying several Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park and releasing them in the Allegheny Mountains in 1913. Almost a century later, Kentucky followed suit by importing several Manitoba elk and releasing them near Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. A few years later, in 2001, The U.S. Park Service imported 25 Manitoba elk and released them in the Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And a year later, 27 more were released in the park.
An Unknown Impact
Today, the elk population of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is thriving, with population estimates at around 150 animals. But, due to the animals’ behavior of moving across the park boundaries and into neighboring communities, the true number is unknown and most likely
much higher than 150 animals. After almost 200 years without the elk, which is the largest member of the deer family, in the Appalachian ecosystem, it was not known how the animals would fare or how the ecosystem would respond to their return. The initial 52 animals were all tagged and several were radio-collared so park officials and biologists could closely monitor the animals’ movements. In the first calving season, many newborn elk were lost to predation from black bears. But, the cows soon learned to behave more defensively with their young and the losses were less as the years went on.
Elk population is one of the greatest concerns for park biologists. Elk populations can explode quickly, especially in an ecosystem devoid of an apex predator like the wolf, as was seen in the mid to late 20th century in Yellowstone National Park. The overpopulation of elk in Yellowstone proved catastrophic to many of the park’s ecosystems and other species, an outcome that must be avoided in the Smokies.
Today, twenty years after their reintroduction into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, elk are a major tourist attraction to the Cataloochee Valley. Elk viewing tour businesses have popped up, and millions of tourists come to the park each year with hopes of seeing these enormous animals in person. Easier to see than the other mammals of the Smokies, elk are far less elusive than black bear, deer, and coyote. They often move into the trees during the hottest part of the days but can be found grazing in the early morning and evening hours in the open valley floors.
The elk represent a great deal of economic value for the area, but conflicts do arise. Elk do not adhere to park boundaries and have been known to venture into town or onto farmland where they can damage crops. This is another reason why the population is heavily monitored, to avoid any potential conflicts with the local communities.
The Fall Rut
The best time for seeing Elk is undoubtedly in the fall when the males are in rut. In fall the mature males, which lose and regrow their antlers each year, are sporting enormous racks spanning up to six feet in width. They bugle at one another to assert dominance and gather females into groups called harems. This is the time of year when younger bulls will challenge dominant males for mating rights, and spontaneous battles between them can erupt. Spring is also an excellent time for seeing elk in the Smokies. This is when there will be newborn calves romping around and playing to build their strength. The males will be in the process of regrowing their antlers, which in spring, will be covered with a layer of velvet.
Elk are also just one of the many species of wildlife one encounters in both spring and fall. Whitetail deer are on a similar schedule for rut and birthing, and black bear cubs in spring are irresistible.
The Future of America’s Wildlife
A statement of the National Park Service says, “A primary mission of the National Park Service is to preserve native plants and animals on lands it manages. In cases where native species have been eliminated from parklands, the National Park Service may choose to reintroduce them.”
The practice of reintroduction has been gaining more and more popularity over the last century, as the preservation of our ecosystems becomes a major concern for many Americans. The story of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone is considered an amazing success at revitalizing a damaged ecosystem. Bison are being reintroduced all over the country to parts of their native range before being nearly wiped out. And, just this fall, Colorado voted to bring wolves back to their state by the year 2024.
If more issues of reintroduction are decided by the ballot box, we can expect more species that disappeared from their native habitats due to hunting, habitat destruction, or other human means to be reintroduced to those ranges. So, what’s next? What animal would you like to see reintroduced to areas where it was once abundant? Would you like to see grizzlies brought back to California, or red wolves reintroduced into the Carolinas? Or if you live in the midwest, are you ready for a bison jam on your way to work?
The main challenge that proponents of wildlife reintroduction will have to face, in my opinion, is habitat fragmentation. Though there may be suitable habitat in the Sierras for grizzly bears, these apex predators need enormous swaths of uninterrupted wilderness to find food and mates. Habitat fragmentation is a major issue all over the world for wild animals. Even in Costa Rica, where over 25% of their land is protected wild areas, animal death due to human conflict (i.e. roadkill and poaching) is common. How will America’s wild animals fare when we bring them back to where they once lived but have to live in a bubble of wilderness, surrounded on all sides by sprawling human civilization?
In the end, I am an outspoken proponent for restoring the balance of the ecosystems we have destroyed, if we are capable of doing so. But, such an enormous undertaking will require the unified action of both state and federal governments, as well as the support of the American people. Tell us where you stand on the issue, and what wildlife you would like to see return to your part of the country.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Big Alaska: Stories & Slideshow
with Grant Ordelheide
Tuesday, February 1st, 2022
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time