Saturday, June 21, 2008

Great Smoky Mountain Elk

I've never devoted a part of my blog to the elk reintroduction taking place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The elk once thrived all along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. As did the bison, the gray and red wolves, and many other animals that have since been killed off from this part of the continent.

A few years ago the Park Service took it upon itself to remedy this situation and made two attempts to reintroduce missing species from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The first attempt was to bring back the red wolf. Unfortunately that attempt failed because the very similar animal, the coyote, had already moved into the park ecosystem to fill the niche that had once belonged to the almost-extinct red wolf. It was sad that the red wolf attempt failed, but the coyote is such a similar species that it's hard to tell the difference between the two. So, for what it's worth, a creature almost identical to the red wolf has come back to those mountains.

The second attempt has proven to be easier and more successful. One reason for this is that the elk reintroduction had already begun in several other eastern states from Pennsylvania in the north to Kentucky farther south. If you want to see elk in the Park, the best place to go is to Cataloochee, one of the more inaccessible sections of the park. You can drive in, but only via gravel roads. There are no nearby urban areas, and so this section of the park is less tame than those closed in by Cherokee and Gatlinburg and other such hellish spots.

Every time I drive in to Cataloochee, I see the elk. Sometimes only a few, but at other times dozens of them. You can find them in the fields that are kept cleared for historical reasons, and also in the forests as you hike along. The elk reintroduction has proven to be quite successful and the herd numbers are holding steady.

The buzz I hear around the wilderness community is that the Park system is considering the restoration of the bison to the area. This would be a great thing, and I hope to see it happen within the next few years. I would love to live to see the return of the two largest mammals of the southern woodlands to a part of their historical range.

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