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Making Roads Safer for Wildlife and People with GPS Elk Collars

Eight months ago, we fitted 3 elk with GPS collars to track their movements in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since then, we’ve collared 4 more elk, and we’re continuing to monitor their movements across nearby roadways to provide science-based recommendations about where wildlife are crossings roads so we can potentially reduce dangerous wildlife-vehicle collisions and increase habitat connectivity as the population expands outside of the park.

Wildlands Network’s Emily Blanchard and the National Park Service’s Joe Yarkovich carefully tend to the elk they just collared during the first round of collaring in March 2018. Photo: Emily Blanchard

Elk in the park do not migrate; instead, they tend to make larger movements during the breeding season, possibly due to changes in food availability. Because of their wide-ranging nature, roads can be a concern for elk, creating barriers to movement and increasing mortality risk. Roads in elk territory can also pose a danger to human safety since elk-vehicle collisions can be severe.

Major roadways surrounding the national park, including Interstate 40 and U.S. 19, are two such sources of concern. Earlier this spring, our Wildlife Conservationist, Emily Blanchard, together with biologists from the park and the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission, collared 5 elk, 3 cows and 2 bulls. We identified these particular animals for collaring because they were more likely to interact with nearby roadways or had a higher probability of making large movements (e.g., young bulls have a higher probability of large movements), leading to increased interaction with roadways.

Crossing Interstate 40

On March 8, we collaredthe first elk, a cow in the Cataloochee Valley who was spotted moving near Interstate 40. Three weeks later, she moved northeast out of the park towards the Interstate. At the end of April, her first I-40 crossing recorded by GPS data occurred in Tennessee about 5 kilometers north of the Tennessee/North Carolina border. The elk crossed back over the Interstate using a road underpass, which also happens to be where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Interstate, 2.3 kilometers south of her previous crossing.

She then returned to Cataloochee for a few days but soon headed northeast again, following the same route to the Interstate and crossing again in the same location. Her GPS movements show that for most of the summer, she stayed north of the Interstate, making small movements but still crossing the Interstate 4 more times, using the underpass for some of her crossings. In early September, she crossed I-40 again to return to Cataloochee, where she currently is and will likely spend the winter.

Figure 1. A GPS-collared cow elk’s movement from March – November 2018 showing travel north out of the park and multiple crossings of Interstate-40 at road grade and under the interstate using an underpass. Graphic: Wildlands Network

Movements Along U.S. 19

The elk mentioned above is our only collared animal to cross the Interstate, but GPS data shows that all of the other collared elk interact with another large roadway, U.S. 19. This 4-lane highway runs along the southern border of the park, through the town of Maggie Valley and Cherokee, North Carolina. Elk moving out of the park are known to move into these towns to forage for grasses, often crossing this busy roadway.

Two adult cows collared for the project show a similar pattern in their habitat use of the area, but their behavior in relation to road crossing is specific to the individuals. One cow crossed the roadway in multiple locations, while the other moved along the roadway using similar areas but never actually crossing the road.

Figure 2. Two collared cow elk use similar areas near U.S. 19 but show different behavior in their interaction with the highway. One elk crossed the highway in multiple locations (A), while the other elk approached the highway and moved along it but never crossed (B). Graphic: Wildlands Network

Elk-Mortality from Vehicle Collision

We collared a 2-year old bull elk, weighing about 550 pounds, in the Cataloochee Valley on March 3. One month after collaring, the bull moved south out of the park, inhabiting areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation land. For the first few months, the bull made small movements along U.S. 19 into Maggie Valley and Cherokee, North Carolina, at times moving north back towards the park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The elk’s death is unfortunate, but it’s important to know where fatal collisions like this occur so that we can better prevent them in the future.

In early July, the bull made an approximately 150-kilometer journey along U.S. 19 and nearby 74, moving through Cherokee, Bryson City, and the Nantahala National Forest before he was eventually struck and killed by a motor vehicle on September 25 near Andrews, North Carolina. His death is unfortunate, but it’s important to know where collisions like this occur so that we can better prevent them in the future.

The frequency of elk-vehicle collisions is likely to increase through time as road networks continue to expand, the elk population continues to grow, and traffic volume increases. The goal of this research project using GPS collars is to provide a better understanding of elk movement and behavior in the context of roadways to help guide the planning for future mitigation strategies to reduce elk-vehicle collisions and increase habitat connectivity as the elk population disperses through time.

Specifically, we want to evaluate movement patterns and distributions of elk relative to roadways, assess the influence of local site (i.e., concrete barriers, traffic density) and landscape (i.e., topography, habitat) characteristics on elk crossing behavior, and determine daily and seasonal patterns of roadway movement.

Figure 3. Location of the bull elk-vehicle collision near Andrews, North Carolina on September 24, 2018 that led to elk mortality and a totaled vehicle but no serious human injuries. Graphic: Wildlands Network

Moving Forward

Overall, GPS locations of these few elk show how important understanding elk movements are in the context of roads for establishing elk habitat connectivity outside of the protected park. The GPS data from these elk show similar patterns in movement routes, use of areas, and individualistic behavior in the relation to roads.

Wildlands Network’s Liz Hillard and National Park Service’s Joe Yarkovich (foreground) collar a bull elk in the Cataloochee Valley, November 16, 2018. Photo: Keith Martin

To really understand how the elk’s movements will inform our connectivity recommendations, however, we’ll need to gather more GPS data over time and with more animals. Currently, we have outfitted 6 elk with GPS collars and will deploy 4 more collars this winter.

On Friday, November16, we collared 2 unknown large bulls (675 and 800 pounds) in the Cataloochee valley with park biologist Joe Yarkovich. We suspect these bulls will be making large movements in the future and will hopefully tell us more about connectivity on roadways surrounding the park. Stay tuned for future updates on the elk and this ongoing research project!

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