The elk herd of Cataloochee Valley will get a reprieve this winter from the normal parade of camera-toting visitors that cycle through their habitat.
Cataloochee will be closed until late May due to landslide repairs along the narrow, steep, winding road into the valley.
Wildlife rangers with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park who keep tabs on the elk herd will have limited access to Cataloochee, as well. Rest assured, however, the elk will be OK without anyone checking on them regularly.
“They are wild animals, so they will be fine,” said Joe Yarkovich, Smokies wildlife biologist and elk herd expert. “In fact, they will probably do better than ever without people there.”
Yarkovich has noted an interesting behavior shift among elk even when they go a few weeks without people around, namely following big snows that linger on the road keeping visitors out.
“Elk start to lose some of their habituation to people and display some of that wild behavior,” Yarkovich said.
The road work itself lies outside the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along Cove Creek Road, the primary way into the valley. While there is another way in to Cataloochee — the long, long way around through Big Creek and over Mount Sterling — it too will be closed as a precaution.
Since the long way around is a 90-minute trip at best on gravel roads, it would take park rangers and rescue personnel too long to respond in the event of an emergency. So a gate will be installed across the back road into Cataloochee as a safety measure.
Park rangers will still make periodic checks on the elk over the next few months using the back way, however, primarily to stay on top of data collection and population monitoring.
“We don’t want to lose out on our data collection, so we will get in there once in awhile,” Yarkovich said.
During the early years of the elk reintroduction, the entire herd was outfitted with radio collars. Today, only about 40 elk still have radio collars.
“It’s a sample population in order to keep up with dispersal and survival for population modeling and to know what the herd is doing,” Yarkovich said.
But since the back road in won’t be maintained during the closure, it could be a tough slog.
“Any time we even go in there, we will have to take chainsaws and clear our own way in and out,” Yarkovich said.
Hopefully, the repairs to Cove Creek Road will stay on track and be finished as planned by May 20. That’s right when the elk calving season begins and is the most hands-on time of the year for the Smokies’ elk team.
Rangers keep close tabs on the number of calves being born and their survival rate during the vulnerable first few weeks. Mothers must periodically leave their newborn calves to graze, and try to hide them from predators when they do, but they can they still fall prey to black bears and coyotes.
“From a population standpoint, the most important data we gather is calf survival. That’s what tells us how the herd is doing and how quickly or slowly the herd is going to grow,” Yarkovich said.
Since all the elk aren’t radio collared, however, it is labor intensive to monitor calving season.
“When we see a cow break off from the herd and go off by herself for a couple of days, we’ll watch where she’s going to find the calves. We are tracking them and chasing them all over from late May through June,” Yarkovich said.