By Monica Lasky on December 10, 2018.
Historically, white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and North American elk (Cervus canadensis) are two cervids (hoofed ruminant mammals) that have ranged the woodlands and forests of North Carolina. However, it is believed that sometime in the late 1700s, the last known elk remaining in North Carolina was shot and killed. This species was extirpated, or regionally extinct, in North Carolina due to hunting and loss of habitat. With the combination of these pressures, the elk population was unable to reproduce enough to replenish the individuals lost, and so the species disappeared from the Carolina landscape. This issue was widespread, as many other states and regions began losing this marvelous cervid, and, by the early 1900s, hunting groups and conservation organizations were worried about losing this species forever. Therefore, people from all over the country united to set out to protect this species from permanent extinction.
With the protections brought on by this movement, the elk population rebounded in several areas across the United States and Canada. However, since North Carolina’s elk population had been completely lost, the animal was not able to recover in our state – that is, until the National Park Service decided to bring them back.
A reintroduction program is used by conservation organizations to put a species back into its former habitat. The purpose of these projects is to establish a healthy, self-sustaining population to the area in which the species was previously found. Individual animals used for reintroduction can either be from captive (‘ex situ’) populations, or from existing wild populations in a different area (‘in situ’). These animals are chosen from a separate population, and then brought back into the habitats in which humans want to replenish the species. In the case of the North American elk, 25 individuals from the Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky and 27 individuals from Elk Island National Park in Canada were brought to Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 2001 by the National Park Service in order to reintroduce the species to North Carolina and surrounding states.
The success of such programs can vary wildly: animals that are much more easy to breed, transport, and/or adapt to new environments tend to do better in reintroduction programs, while more ‘delicate’ species commonly do not have successful reintroductions. One of the biggest limitations for reintroduction projects is the availability of suitable habitat. You can bring a tropical bird into the desert, but it won’t be unable to survive there since the area lacks an adequate source of food, water, and cover. Thus, taking habitat suitability into account is one of the major factors for reintroduction, and must be taken seriously before scientists can think about moving animals back into an extirpated region.
Luckily, the elk population in the Great Smoky Mountains appears to be slowly increasing: from the 52 animals first introduced, we now have around 150 – 200 individuals ranging along the North Carolina–Tennessee border. Candid Critters has obtained several photos of elk on our cameras: 10 of our deployments across Haywood and Swain counties have spotted a North American elk, leading to over 50 photos of this reintroduced species! Most of these detections were captured in 2017, which means that, after 15 years since the reintroduction of this species, the elk in North Carolina appear to be alive and well. This gives us great hope that, with more time, the elk population in North Carolina will be able to fully recover, and we will once again be able to call this species a native of our wonderful state.
Information courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service and the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission