Bill Stiver and Kim Delozier, both Wildlife Managers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, presented a paper with Tabbatha Cavendish (now a Cosby Law Enforcement Ranger, but at the time a graduate student at the University of Tennessee) titled “Disease Surveillance Of Wild Hogs In Great Smoky Mountains National Park – A Focus on Pseudorabies” at the Wild Pig Symposium in April, 2008. The paper summarized the findings of 497 wild hog serological (blood) samples from invasive wild hogs removed from in the Park.
Why did they sample blood? Park employees noticed that some of the hogs they caught did not behave or look like other hogs they had caught here in the past. They hypothesized that these odd hogs must be coming from other states; people haul them to remote Park boundaries and release them “into the wild.” The problem this causes is more than just an increased feral hog population. The release of hogs may have spread wildlife diseases to the hogs already here, which in the future can infect native animals in the Park and pet dogs camping with families in the Smokies.
In 2001, Great Smoky Mountains National Park established a partnership with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to survey for wild hog diseases and, in 2005, similar partnerships were established with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Veterinary Services. While hogs had tested negative for pseudorabies in the early 2000s, they wanted to maintain the testing to watch for changes. From 2001 to 2007, wildlife managers tested about 28 percent of the hogs they captured for two of the most common hog diseases: swine brucellosis and pseudorabies. All samples were negative for swine brucellosis. Since 2005, 16 wild hog samples (3.2%) tested positive for pseudorabies. The most recent sampling indicates that the prevalence and distribution of the disease may be increasing in the Park. Managers believe that the increase in pseudorabies in the Smokies is directly related to the illegal release of feral hogs near the park boundary.
The following is quoted from a Great Smoky Mountains National Park News Release by Bob Miller, December 18, 2008
As the Experimental Elk Release Program at Great Smoky Mountains National Park ends its eighth year, Park biologists say that the population of elk has nearly doubled from the 52 animals originally released in 2001-2002 to an estimated 95 at the end of 2008.
Smokies Elk Project Manager Joe Yarkovich, said, “This year’s calving season was another big success in terms of survival for the calves. A total of 19 calves have been confirmed to have been born this year, the same number of calves born in 2007, but the survival rate this year was higher. This year 16 of the 19 calves born, 84%, are thought to be still alive, while last year only 13 of the 19 calves survived.”
“If there is a downside this calving season, “Yarkovich continued, “the sex ratio of the calves born was fairly poor from the standpoint of herd growth. Of the 16 surviving calves this year, only 5 are female, 10 are male, and the sex of the last one is yet to be determined. Ultimately, the number of breeding females in the herd will have the greatest effect on their long-term success, so we would always like to see more females being born.”
Of the calves that did not survive Yarkovich said that one appeared to have died from natural causes while the other two were never found, so they could have died of natural causes or been taken by predators.
During the first few years of the experiment, calf survival had averaged only around 50%, due almost entirely to predation by bears. Biologists believe that the improved survival rates are due to a combination of improved parenting by the cows and predator management efforts that began in 2006.
Each year since 2006 bears were trapped in and around Cataloochee Valley during the late-May to early-July calving season, then radio-collared and relocated to the Twenty Mile area located in the western portion of the Park in North Carolina. The bears’ movements were tracked after they were released and, even though a number of them returned to Cataloochee, biologists believe that that by the time they got back the young calves were mobile enough to travel safely with their mothers.
Biologists say that there were five adult elk that died during the year. Of these, three died of undetermined, but apparently natural, causes. One was struck by a vehicle along Big Cove Road in Cherokee and was euthanized as a result of his injuries. Finally, a yearling bull was found dead in Little Cataloochee on November 5, but necropsy results and disease tests on the animal have not been returned yet.
“We expect 2009 to be another exciting year for the Park’s Elk Program,” Yarkovich continued, “In terms of calf production there are several young cows that should give birth to their first calves next summer, so we have the potential for another record-setting year for herd expansion. And, next fall the rut should be quite a contest as we have quite a few bulls which are nearing ten years of age, which is when they develop the largest antlers. So if the food supply is good we have the potential for even more spectacular racks...next year. There are also a few rather aggressive younger bulls that will be gaining weight and antler mass, so competition during the 2009 rut should certainly be exciting.”
Park biologists say that winter elk viewing is best during early mornings and late afternoons but that on the colder days the elk can often be seen in the open fields all day long, particularly when it is overcast. They caution that narrow, winding, gravel Cataloochee Road is frequently icy, even when there is no snow, so drivers need to drive carefully.
During 2009 Park managers plan to publish an Environmental Assessment (EA) which will lay out all the findings of research that was conducted during the experimental release and will invite comments regarding any concerns which the public may have. Concurrent with the EA they will be producing an Elk Management Plan that will include a long-term strategy for managing elk in the Smokies.