Antoine Fletcher 0:00 Fecal matter dung, scat, poop are the words that will go unnamed in his program. I don't know why, but for some reason these terms make us a bit embarrassed at times. Of course, we know what these terms mean. But why do they make us so uncomfortable? Well, to make it easier according to live science, humans can produce 25,000 pounds of poop by the age of 80. That is the weight of a semi-truck that you see on the highway. Now, that's a lot of poop emojis. But if you dig through all that smelly goodness, there are small tidbits of science that can teach us about our health. And most importantly, the health of the elk population in the Smokies. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been home to one of the largest land mammals to ever roam East Tennessee and western North Carolina. Standing at five feet tall and 500 to 1000 pounds in weight, the ELCA the Smokies can easily be called the kings and queens of the open grasslands. But believe it or not, these glorified cows called the Smokies home over 200 years ago. Sadly, they were hunted out in East Tennessee in western North Carolina by the 1800s and later reintroduced by the park and its partners in 2001.
In today's episode, we're simply exploring how elk fecal matter will help us learn more about their abundance, recruitment, and survival since they were reintroduced in the Smokies. We hope that learning these factors will help us make informed decisions to help this longtime resident survive in the park for years to come. So rather you're listen to it from your brownstone in New York City, or from one of the neighboring communities of the park. We hope this episode helps you build a better appreciation not only for the elk the Smokies but the science that they leave behind. Welcome the Smoky Signal, a show about the science behind the Smokies brought to you by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and produced in the mountains and valleys of the Smokies. This season we will be exploring three episodes on the theme of collections. We will be talking about renewing traditional plant gathering practices, a natural museum that has collected 1000s of species, and even something pretty stinky in the name of science. I'm Antoine stay with us.
If you have ever been to the Smokies when the forest starts to change from a shade of emerald to a shade of amber, you have probably been amazed by the fall transition. But there's nothing like hearing this call cut through the crisp mountain air. And if you take the time to look underneath the canopy, you may see the towering silhouettes of large male elk grunting and moving erratically as their nostrils create vapor that quickly dissipates in the air. What you were experiencing is the legendary fall rut the time when male elk fight for their mates. But as the season wanes and the elk move on to researchers and scientists began their quest to learn more about elk and one way to do that is to study their poop. But first you have to learn about the history of elk in the Smokies. On a January morning, I met with Joe Yarkovich wildlife biologist for the Smokies and he knows quite a bit about the history of elk in the park.
Joe Yarkovich 3:59 Elk were native and abundant throughout pretty much all of North America for centuries up until the late 1790s early 1800s. In the late 1790s. The last elk was shot and killed in North Carolina in the early 1800s. The last elk was killed in the Tennessee side. And since that time, you know had been about a 200-year absence without the animals on the landscape. I mean really not a lot is known about their history in the area. There have been some artifacts found some old antlers found that's really how we know they're here. Some of the early settlers had written brief descriptions of seeing elk in the area, but it gets a little confusing because they were using terminology for different animals they may have been calling white tailed deer, elk, European elk are different from American elk and so there they could have been seeing different animals calling out at the same time.
Antoine Fletcher 4:49 Some 200 years later, the park habit dilemma on its hands, to reintroduce or to not reintroduce that was the question.
Joe Yarkovich 5:00 Biologist and researchers working in the park were in the middle of a red wolf reintroduction in Cades Cove. That project ended up failing and the wolves ended up being removed. But all the staff was tied up on that project. And so, taking on this new reintroduction, bringing another large mammal in at the time, just couldn't do it right then. But that was enough to get the ball rolling to look at whether or not the park could still support in our population.
Antoine Fletcher 5:27 There had been quite some time since the last elk was hunted in the North Carolina region of the park. But also, the environment of the park can change quite a bit. And there were many factors to consider before reintroducing these glorified cows back into the Smokies park biologist had to think about factors such as habitat, disease, and impact risk assessments.
Joe Yarkovich 5:53 That got the ball rolling to where researchers from University of Tennessee did a habitat assessment of the entire park to figure out do, we even have the food here to support these animals. Their findings were pretty interesting in that elk prefer open grasslands for food and the Smokies is largely a closed canopy forest mature hardwoods. Within the park though there were three areas that were identified as primary lease sites. So, the researchers found that if you're going to bring out back they would recommend one of these three areas and those areas were Cades Cove, the high balds through the middle of the park or Cataloochee Valley in the southeastern corner of the park. So, from a habitat standpoint, they said there is habitat there. If you're going to do it would recommend these three areas. That was really just the first step in that process. After that came disease risk assessments you have to consider what kind of diseases or parasites animals might be bringing in with them. You don't want to reintroduce or introduce a some kind of new parasite to the area or something detrimental. You have to look at impacts to the vegetation, you have to look at impacts to the visitor experience, the infrastructure, of the park from increased visitation, all these things needed to be taken into account.
Antoine Fletcher 7:09 With the help of the University of Tennessee's researchers to park found the perfect habitat for the elk's reintroduction, but there was one small, well large thing that was missing.
Joe Yarkovich 7:22 The original plan was to bring in a total of 75 to 90 animals across a three-year timeframe between 2001 2002 and 2003 to bring in 25 to 30 animals per year. The first group of elk we brought in in 2001 came from Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky, we got 25 animals from there, held them in in acclimation pen and Cataloochee Valley for I think two months to three months and then released them into Cataloochee. The second group of elk was brought in from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, that was 27 animals and mix of male and female held in the acclimation pen and Cataloochee and again released a couple months later.
Antoine Fletcher 8:03 Acclimation pens hmm, this sounds interesting.
Joe Yarkovich 8:08 When the elk were brought into Cataloochee, they were held in a six-acre acclimation pen. And when I say that it looked like a giant dinosaur pen that you would see in Jurassic Park. I mean, it had 10-to-12-foot wooden walls around it, there were solid so you couldn't see through it. We had put up some screening on there so nobody could look in and that was for the benefit of the elk. You know, they'd been through a lot of stress coming here. Once they were put in that pen. We didn't want tons of visitors going up and poking their hands in or spooking those animals, stressing those animals out any more than they needed to.
Antoine Fletcher 8:44 This technique is called a soft release. The pen helps the animals get used to their new surroundings, and researchers have discovered that this leads to a higher site fidelity, or that these animals will stay where you release them. On the other hand, if a park does a hard release, or let the animals go once they are reintroduced to the park, the animals tend to disperse in more locations than the intended release location. But of course, there was a snag. Just as the park was about to release its third elk herd, the state of North Carolina passed a temporary prohibition that banned the importation of elk across state line. This was because of Chronic Waste Disease or CWD. CWD is a degenerative neurological disease that can be found in animals such as deer and elk. CWD can depopulate a population of infected animals in a short time. So, without a way to test the third group of help for CWD the original 75 to 90 animals that was proposed to be released turned to 52 animals.
Joe Yarkovich 9:56 We get the question a lot of how many elk do we have in the park? or how many elk are in North Carolina now. We started with 52 total by the end of 2002. Since that time the population has been growing and expanding. And I mentioned that this had started as an experiment to see if l could survive. Obviously, we didn't just put elk on the landscape and forget about them. There was some really intensive monitoring and research that went along with that. And one of the biggest outcomes of that research was trying to figure out the population growth and the population numbers to figure out if the elk could sustain themselves here without outside intervention. We've gone through several iterations of how we've been tracking the population over the years. Right now, we're finishing up a new research project that's looking at fetal DNA as a Mark Recapture study, where we can go in and get a pretty good population estimate throughout all of Western North Carolina.
Antoine Fletcher 10:54 the story of elk being hunted out and reintroduced some 200 years later. It's a testament to the importance of conservation in the Smokies. What may be even more challenging, is understanding if this experiment is working at all in wait a minute, did he say fecal pellets? This is where Dr. Joe Clark, a research ecologist with USGS, and Jessica Braunstein, a PhD student and researcher from the University of Tennessee becomes important to this story. They have been studying elk fecal pellets since the winter of 2020. These researchers are helping the Smokies understand elk abundance estimates, recruitment or annual added population, and annual survival rates since reintroduction.
Dr. Clark 11:44 We are using method to estimate elk abundance called Capture Mark Recapture. And if you can think about that, like maybe there's a jar of marbles, a big jar of marbles, and you don't know how many marbles are in that jar. So, they estimate. So you reach your hand inside that jar and get a big double handful, and maybe mark those marbles and put them back into a jar to count the marbles that you took out. Maybe there's 100 of them, mark them and put them back in the jar and mix them all up real good. And so, you take out another big double handful in the ratio in that in that second handful, the ratio of marked to unmarked animals is going to be the same as it was in the original sample that you took. So, if you took 100 samples, and the ratio of marked to unmarked samples in your second sample is say 50%. And you know, you've got roughly 200 marbles in that jar. And so that's, in essence what we're doing with with the elk.
Antoine Fletcher 13:01 Now that we haven't lost our marbles, we can move on to tracking elk and pass years, elk were trapped, immobilize, and fitted with ear tags and telemetry collars, these methods have the park understand the abundance of population, but methods have become a little less intrusive in the research world. Now Dr. Clark is looking for something that is about the size of your fingernail
Dr. Clark 13:28 Elk pellets are bigger than deer pellets, they look, I say they're about the size of your thumbnail, maybe a little smaller.
Antoine Fletcher 13:37 And it's what's on the fecal pellets, that's telling us more about the elk in the park.
Jessica Braunstein 13:44 So, we actually sample for elk pellets in the winter. So, we sample January through March. And we do that because it tends to be a little bit drier than if you think of a summer in the Smokies where we have a lot of rain and a lot of moisture. Well, that moisture is actually not very good for the DNA that's on the pellet. So, we sample in the winter. And basically when we go out, we're trying to collect relatively fresh pellets. So, they're gonna be intact still, and they usually have a little bit of a glossy sheen. And that glossy sheen is actually mucus that contains epithelial cells that are shed from the intestinal lining. And those cells are what contain the DNA, which is what is the key thing for our study.
Antoine Fletcher 14:33 Although the field work for collecting fecal pellets concluded in the winter of 2022, the researchers are beginning to analyze the data that they've collected. So that means the jury's still out. However, Jessica can give us a pretty good idea of what their data is going to tell us. And that could be anything from elk population growth, survival rates, and factors we did not think about when we reintroduce elk into the park.
Jessica Braunstein 15:02 You know, he haven't analyzed enough that data for me to say if there's been much of a difference since 2020, we do know there's more elk than there were when they were first reintroduced in the early 2000s. I think some other work that Dr. Clark has done has shown you know the population is growing.
Antoine Fletcher 15:22 And as the population grows, researchers have found elk and other places besides the Smokies.
Jessica Braunstein 15:29 Cataloochee Valley, it was their original release site when elk reintroduced in early 2000s. And we know that a pretty large group of elk still hangs out there, we know they've also moved over to the Oconaluftee area. And some of the largest I guess, elk groups kind of in the whole region hang out in Cataloochee and Oconaluftee. So, we also know elk have expanded their range beyond just Great Smoky Mountain National Park. So, I think it's important to mention that we're also sampling in those areas, that private land surrounding the park like a Maggie Valley, kind of Jonathan Creek area, and then also Pisgah National Forest. So, over the past three years, there are several individuals we've put capture captured, as in, we found there, pellets, we've captured multiple times. But then there's also been a couple other studies prior to ours, that, you know, they're just testing out different methods and things like that. And we've captured some of the individuals that were from those studies, too, which is pretty interesting.
Antoine Fletcher 16:36 We've also learned that transporting elk from regions where they're not used to bears has major consequences to the survival rates in the Smokies.
Dr. Clark 16:45 Early on in the elk reintroduction effort, we noticed black bears were predating on elk calves at pretty high rate. Bears are really not capable nor do they are nor are they interested in killing an adult elk it's just too much. It's just too hazardous to try to undertake. But what they do what they can do is kill and consume elk calves, these elk calves are pretty self sufficient after about two weeks of age. But before that period of time, they're they're pretty unsteady on their legs, and about their own defense is to just lie there and be still and hope for the best. And a lot of the elk were given birth out in the out in some of these open fields. The elk that we got came from a place that did not have black bears. And so, they were naive to bears. And so, they were just given birth out in the middle of these fields. And bears would come out there and search around and in find these elk calves and kill them and eat them. And so, we saw that. So, we we started trapping bears and moving them out of the Cataloochee area. We did that for I think three years. And we knew that the bears would come right back, he was just moving them to the other end of the park. We knew they would come right back. But we were hoping that the calves could make it through that two-week period before they made it back. And so, we did that. And sure enough the recruitment rates, the reproductive rates went up calf survival were during those three years. So, that was pretty successful. And then, in the meantime, I think the elk themselves learned about predators and learned about coyotes and say we're familiar with but also black bears. And so now I think they're more aggressive toward bears than they used to be. And they also give birth in more secluded areas, it makes it more difficult for predators to find their calves.
Antoine Fletcher 19:10 But even through the setbacks of predation, we definitely can learn a lot about the elk population by one simple thing. And that's just counting.
Joe Yarkovich 19:19 But in addition to the larger population estimate, we do what we consider minimum counts for the area. And this is a really intensive effort we do across a three day period in conjunction with the State Wildlife Commission as well as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, where we take three days and just canvass all of Western North Carolina where we know elk are counting any animals that we see tracking down any radio collared animals we have and counting the animals with those according to age and sex, demographics, and that gives us a total minimum count. So we can say we have at least so many animals in the park at this given time. That's not the same as a population estimate which takes a lot more science and rigor behind it. But when people ask how many animals do you have a quick and easy answer for us to say we have at least so many animals. Our last count conducted in late 2022 gave us at least 111 animals that use the Smoky Mountain National Park Lands, at least part of the year.
Antoine Fletcher 20:19 Although it can be exciting for us all to enjoy wildlife in the park, the Smokies has a sworn responsibility to educate visitors about wildlife safety.
Joe Yarkovich 20:30 You know, I always enjoy seeing large mammals on the landscape. There's nothing really that compares to seeing a 900 pound or 1000-pound bull elk during the rut, just screaming his head off fighting with other bulls chasing cows around. You know, that's why visitors like to come and see it as well. It's really exciting. It's really unique, particularly to this area, because you are in such close proximity these animals and you can see them so well. So, when you see that there's just something innate in human nature that makes you excited to see that you're seeing raw nature and I think people really engage with raw nature in a different way. I think it's a natural tendency of humans to want to be closer to these large animals that they see. Everybody wants a better picture. Everybody wants a better look at it. But it really places the visitors in a lot of risk whether they realize it or not. It also in endangers the elk a lot of different ways. We do have several methods of outreach that we try to use to talk to these visitors or let people know of safe viewing practices within the park. Their signage throughout the park, there are informational pamphlets put out. We have a group of volunteers dedicated just to managing visitors around the elk. In the busy times of year, we have a group called the Ocanoluftee Elk Rovers and another group called the Elk Bugle Corps over in Cataloochee. Those volunteers work through the summer and fall months. Their sole purpose is to help visitors view elk responsibly, keep visitors and elk safe while they're doing it, and provide a better experience for the visitors overall they carry around props like antlers and then elk hide an elk skull that can engage visitors and really make it more of an engaging experience for them instead of just looking out the window of your car. When we do see people approaching elk too closely, we typically just ask them to back up and obey the park rules. We have a 50-yard regulation within the park where it's illegal to approach any elk or bear within 50 yards, or any distance that disturbs or displaces that animal 50 yards is half a football field. If you're farther than that, but the animal is still focused on you rather than feeding or doing what comes naturally to it. You're still too close and we ask that you back up and give that animals more room for safe viewing in the Ocanoluftee and Cataloochee area. We ask that visitors stay next to or in their vehicles if they're along the roadway. We ask that they pull their vehicle completely off the road because traffic can be quite a situation along these roads. We don't want traffic to backup more importantly, we don't want visitors sitting in a blind curve or somewhere that they could hit by a car we ask that they keep their dogs on a leash. We're in their cars well, that can sometimes trigger a reaction from elk. And we recommend people bring binoculars or telephoto lenses if they want those close-up photos of animals.
Antoine Fletcher 23:19 Fecal matter, dung, scat, other names we won't dare say in this program. Although a stinky topic, the one name we should call it is quite simple. And that's science and this stinky science has given us ascending hope that our grassland giants will not go unheard for quite some time. And as our knowledge grows through our research, we hope that not only their abundance, recruitment, and survival rates grow with it. But we also hope that the stewardship between human and mammal grows as well. I'm Antoine and this is Smoky Signal.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Don't step in it! Research it! In this episode, Great Smoky Mountains National Park staff teams up with the U.S. Geological Society and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to learn more about elk abundance, recruitment, and survival since being reintroduced in the Smokies in 2001.