Not long ago, the wildlife stars of Great Smoky Mountains National Park were its black bears, which can surprise hikers, occasionally raid campgrounds and lend their roly-poly images to postcards.
No more. The bears still rank high as park symbols, but in sheer popularity they've been shouldered aside by a charismatic newcomer, the North American elk.
Elk have been drawing sellout-type crowds since they were reintroduced eight years ago. Unlike furtive bears, often seen as fleeting shadows, elk show themselves twice daily. In fall, bulls put on heart-thumping displays of sparring and bugling to the delight of wildlife watchers who brandish video cameras, telephoto lenses and spotting scopes.
The elk are prospering in the thick forests and lush meadows of Cataloochee Valley on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. From an initial release of 52 animals in 2001 and 2002, herd numbers have jumped to a current 90 to 95. This spring's crop of calves promises a baby boom.
"We should just top 100 animals within the next couple of weeks," said Joe Yarkovich, the park's elk project manager.
Yarkovich said all signs point to a success of the experimental release. The free-ranging animals look healthy and plump. But a formal decision on giving permanent residency to the elk won't come until the end of the year, park spokeswoman Nancy Gray said. The animals would succeed the native elk that were hunted out in the mountains and foothills 175 years ago.
Most of the park's elk can be seen from the 21/2-mile-long, two-lane road that runs the valley's length. Bulls and cows enter the adjacent meadows near dusk and dawn to graze, then melt back into the forest.
The elk attract so many sightseers, creating traffic jams on weekends, that the park in 2007 created the Elk Bugle Corps. The corps' 58 volunteers last year spoke with more than 60,000 people, according to a park news release. Volunteers drive what looks like a pint-sized Land Rover (a donated electric ATV) and carry a half an antler to help educate visitors (park rules ban removal of sheds).
Volunteers such as Linda and Pat Stewart of Lake Junaluska, a retired couple, also keep overeager visitors from striding into the meadows for close-up photos, not mindful of the danger from a charging 1,000-pound bull. Park rules require people to stay 150 feet away for safety reasons.
"To me, it's seeing how far out in the field people will go to get a picture of an elk," Linda Stewart said last month."I just don't think they realize they're wild animals."
Elk in turn keep a watchful eye.
"It's always interesting when the coyotes show up," Pat Stewart said. "Elk don't pay attention to people. They watch those coyotes all the way and back."
Sometimes elk pass unexpectedly close. Minutes after the Stewarts spoke, two elk sprinted across the road, in front of stopped cars, and bound over Palmer Creek, to join a grazing group.
The elk were relocated from Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky and Tennessee and Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation paid $700,000 of the $1.1million cost.
The animals adapted well to their new home. But reproduction stagnated. Park biologists eventually figured out the reason for lack of population increases: bears preying on newborn calves.
In 2006, biologists began bearing down. They trapped bears around Cataloochee Valley before calving season and released them miles away. Bears have good homing instincts. But, by the time they ambled back to the valley, the calves had become deft enough to avoid predation.
As a result, survival began rising. Last year, 16 of 19 calves survived compared to three of nine in 2005. One downside: Just five of the 16 are females.
Yarkovich said cows had no previous dealings with bears because fences enclose Land Between the Lakes and Elk Island park. He said cows have become better at hiding calves and defending them.
Now that the population has almost doubled, the park has stopped exiling bears, leaving the elk to fend for themselves.
Gray said park officials will make an environmental assessment to evaluate potential environmental and social impacts of elk and give the public a chance to comment on proposed alternatives for future management.
The population should keep growing, Yarkovich said. The valley can support more than 200. Some have migrated west to the Oconaluftee area, along U.S. 441. Seventy-five wear radio-collars for tracking. N.C. law protects elk off the 521,000-acre park.
Yarkovich said he expects the animals to move farther west.
"Eventually," he said, "we'd like to see them across the entire park."