Monday, November 02, 2015

Megafauna East.

If you want to see lots of wildlife and lots of large animals, the American West has that championship tied up. The selection of large creatures and vast numbers of animals here on the eastern side of the USA is rather limited by comparison. Unless or until efforts are made to repatriate species that are now vanished from our landscape, there are few places where you can be guaranteed to see such animals.

I've mentioned before that Florida and other parts of the American deep south are great for large animals and species diversity. But if you're not in that part of the country and you want to look elsewhere, then the best option for you would be the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

For species diversity in general, there are few places on the entire planet as solid as the Great Smokies. You could spend an entire lifetime exploring the slopes of those mountains searching out and identifying the dizzying array of flora. In fact, some botanists indeed spend their careers there doing just that.

The animal life there is also impressive. It's one of the few places in southern Appalachia where I can generally depend on being able to view lots of wildlife and lots of larger animals. Because of the elk reintroduction a visitor to the Park can now see these huge deer in various parts of the Smokies. One section of the area was chosen for reintroduction and now they have spread out into other parts of the Park. On visiting Cataloochee you can pretty much guarantee being  able to spot them in the fields and meandering in the deep  forests.

The west has both brown and black bears. We don't have Griz here, but we do have plenty of black bears and if there is one place you can see them, it's inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, it's hard to make an extended trip to the Park and not see bears.

While mountain lions have yet to repopulate this part of the country, you can sometimes spot bobcats inside the Smokies protected boundaries. Until the puma is repatriated, bobcats are the biggest wild feline you'll spot here. Also sometimes seen in the woods here are both gray and red foxes. And, while they may not have been historically part of the ecosystem, coyotes have populated the mountains in good numbers and have filled the niche formerly occupied by Timber wolves and Red wolves. Contrary to negative propaganda inspired by gun owners, the presence of coyotes is a great sign for the Smokies.

One can sometimes get tired of seeing white-tailed deer in the forests, farmlands, and  even citiscapes of the east. But I still get a kick out of seeing them in the Smokies. They're actually not as common inside the Park as they are outside of it, since they have adapted so well to living alongside humans. To me, white-tailed deer in the Park are still a sign of wilderness.

One animal that is not welcome in the Park but which has firmly established itself is the Wild hog. These are largely descendants of European boars brought into the area to supply nearby hunting preserves before and shortly after the Park was formed. These are non-native animals and have created many of the problems one associates with invasive species. Still, it can sometimes be a thrill to spot one of these alien creatures in the deep forests.

A couple of other large animals that have been reintroduced to the Smokies are Northern river otters and beavers. Both of these were hunted relentlessly until they were gone from most of the southern Appalachians, but have now been encouraged to return. Neither are common in the Park, but you can spy them from time to time if you know where to go and are careful and quiet.

I'm hoping that at some time there will be an effort to reintroduce the American bison to the Great Smoky Mountains. They, too, were exterminated and should be allowed to return. But the Park is now closed tightly in by communities with lots of people and lots of development. This is a severe and ongoing problem for the Park. The people who now live so close to the boundaries in large numbers would likely balk at the idea of returning North America's largest land animal to the forests and fields here. But maybe it can happen.

Also, I feel certain that the Mountain lion will--on its own--come back to this part of eastern North America. If that happens before I die, I'd love to see one stalking through our southern Appalachian forests.

For a complete list of the mammals of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can look here.

It's not a Red wolf, but close enough. Coyotes have colonized the Park.

This is why big animals can come back here...plenty of wild habitat.

A bull elk I photographed in the Park.

A herd of elk at rest in a field in Cataloochee.

I still find it sometimes hard to believe that the elk have returned.

Turkey were hard to see when I was a kid visiting the Park. Now they're very, very common. These I photographed while at the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Turkey flock in Cataloochee. They browse side by side with the elk.
I cheated a little here. I photographed this black bear in Virginia, but even as grainy as this photo turned out (both the bear and I were surprised to see one another), it's better than any of my bear photos taken in the Smokies.

I got this photo of this regal buck in Cades Cove.

White-tailed deer in the snow in Cades Cove two winters ago.

Bison bull in South Dakota. I hope to see these creatures repatriated to the southern Appalachians some day.

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