I drove slowly along the narrow, winding road toward the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, careful not to veer too close to the edge of the mountainside as snow flew directly at the car. I was making my way toward Cataloochee, a series of meadows maintained by the National Park Service for grazing elk.
Elk were reintroduced to the Smokies in 2001 and 2002 after being eliminated from the region by over-hunting and habitat loss by the late 1700s. As their population has risen, so has their exploration of areas outside the park. And with their wanderings has come an increased risk of elk-vehicle collisions.
On this wintery day, my field partner—our National Park Service colleague, Joe Yarkovich—and I visited the park to hopefully help reduce such collisions. Thanks to a gracious donor, we had 11 new GPS collars in hand to outfit elk likely to cross nearby Interstate 40 and U.S. 19. Working with the National Parks Conservation Association and North Carolina Wildlife Federation, we’ll outfit 11 elk with collars to monitor their movements. If we can identify where these massive animals approach the highways, we can help inform where wildlife crossing structures could be installed in the future to prevent wildlife-vehicle collisions—bringing us another step closer to achieving our vision of a reconnected, restored, and rewilded North America.
As we arrived at our pre-selected meadow, the elk continued grazing—seemingly undaunted by our presence. We were in luck: The first elk we had identified for collaring stood among the herd. We were interested in this particular elk because she and her calf had been reported walking near I-40 on multiple occasions. Her calf has since grown up and left her mother’s side.
Joe skillfully began the careful process of preparing the tranquilizer and reversal drugs. We chose GPS collars to monitor the elk because such collaring is the most effective way to follow their movements throughout the vast Smoky Mountains. The GPS collars will automatically upload elk locations via satellite, allowing us to sidestep the need to otherwise find and track animals in the wilderness. In addition, the GPS collars provide 24-hour monitoring and will alert us if an elk comes within the boundaries of the highways, allowing us to respond right away and potentially prevent another wildlife-vehicle collision.
We blindfolded the elk so as not to alarm her and took the necessary precautions to ensure her health and safety during the collaring—positioning her body to prevent bloating, pulling her tongue out of her mouth to ease her breathing, and tilting her head so that saliva could escape. We recorded her measurements and temperature as the light snow continued to fall. Some of the other elk appeared curious, but they soon wandered away to graze elsewhere in the field as we finished our routine.
After we fitted the collar around the female’s neck, Joe then administered the reversal drug to gently awaken her. We made sure we had recorded all of our data and gathered our supplies before creeping away.
Back at the car parked on the edge of the meadow, we waited a few minutes and watched the elk slowly rise; she lifted her head lazily, like she was hung over and not quite ready to get up. She slowly stretched and then lay back down. Eventually, she began calling out to her herd and once again rose. Her call sounded like someone was blowing a whistle or a kazoo! She made her way back to the group, nearly indistinguishable from her neighbors but for the brand new collar adorning her neck.
We celebrated our first successful collar, and later that morning, we collared 2 more without incident. Over the next few months, we’ll be collaring 8 additional elk and monitoring their movements in the park and around nearby roadways. We’ll use this information to make recommendations to the North Carolina Department of Transportation about potential sites for wildlife crossing structures. Stay tuned to our blog to follow our elk-collaring journey!
To support our critical efforts to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, you can help fund projects like our elk-collaring study. You can also learn more about how we’re rethinking roads for wildlife in our Eastern Wildway.