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Elk Released from Acclimation Pen - Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Posted: April 4, 2001

On April 4, 2001, Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildlife biologists released the first 25 elk to roam the Park in almost 200 years. The elk were confined to a temporary acclimation pen in the Cataloochee area of the Park since their arrival in North Carolina on February 2, 2001. See Update 10/19/05

The Park decision to release the elk for its five-year experimental release through a "soft release" following a brief period of confinement was designed to reduce stress and mortality on the animals and to bond them to one another socially. Biologists also hoped that the process will establish the pen site as the hub of the herd's territory, reducing their wanderings.

"Monday's release from the pen went exactly as we had hoped it would," Park Wildlife Biologist, Kim DeLozier said. "The elk noticed the open gate by about 9:00 a.m, but they came out very cautiously rather than like a jail break. It took them until nearly 5:30 p.m. to venture out, and when they did emerge, they moved as a group rather than scattering in different directions. Then, after browsing for about an hour, something startled them and they took refuge back in the pen."

By Tuesday morning a smaller group had made their way down into the 1,000 acre, open meadow where they were sampling newly-emerged spring grass. From this point on a University of Tennessee graduate student will be monitoring all 25 elk via a mixture of new GPS collars and standard radio tracking collars. The information gathered about the animals' health, reproduction, movements, habitat preferences, and any human conflicts will guide the Park's decision on a permanent elk release.

Unlike the arrival event in February, which attracted over 900 wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and plenty of media, Monday's event was purposely very low-key. Only three still and video photographers were on hand, waiting patiently in a special scent-suppressing blind, to record the animal's first explorations into the Smokies. To reduce the stress on these new arrivals to the nation's busiest national park, the upper end of Cataloochee Valley is currently closed at least through Friday to all visitor use in both cars and pedestrians - beyond the bridge near the Beech Branch School. Park managers will decide by Friday whether the elk have had enough time to get accustomed to the Valley to allow the area to reopen for the weekend. The Big Fork Ridge Trail which will remain closed to public use until further notice.

"But even after the road reopens we still need for people to keep their distance from the elk," DeLozier concluded. "People are welcome to watch or photograph them from a distance, but we ask people not to pursue them if they move off. They are still strangers in a strange land and will need space and time to adapt."

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