Elk disappeared from Tennessee over a century ago. In a recent public ceremony, 25 elk were brought back into the Smoky Mountains National Park. The animals will be kept in enclosures until the "green up" of spring, when they will be formally reintroduced into the wild.
Researchers from the University of Tennessee's Institute of Agriculture are working closely with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to determine how well these and previously released elk adapt to their new Tennessee habitats.
In December, 50 elk were released into the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area of the Cumberland Plateau. UT's Dr. Lisa Muller (forestry, wildlife and fisheries) and master's student Dave Buckles are using radio telemetry to track the elk during the first critical period of adaptation.
Despite five recent deaths, the animals are doing well, forming herds and staying in the region. As their population expands, Muller and her students will continue to monitor the elk to understand how the herds form, socialize, and establish territory.
Issues of habitat rather than movement will be the focus as Dr. Joe Clark and doctoral student Jennifer Murrow prepare the 25 new elk for their April release into the Smokies. The animals will be monitored using standard VHF frequency radio collars and, on some elk, next generation collars equipped with global positioning systems (GPS).
Clark notes that UT studies helped determine that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park possessed sufficient habitat to support the re-introduction of elk. How elk will actually adapt to and affect an ecosystem that is itself rapidly changing is of primary interest.
"We're still evaluating two things," says Clark, "whether or not the Smokies are good for the elk, and whether or not the elk are going to be good for the Smokies."
Clark, laboratory director for the U.S. Geological Survey's Southern Appalachian Field Laboratory located at UT, also holds adjunct appointments in UT Departments of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries and the Graduate Program in Ecology.
[Contact: Dr. Lisa Muller, Dr. Joe Clark]