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Studying Elk Movements in Southern Appalachia

Four elk stand in a row in an open grassy field surrounded by tall trees.

This is post 3 of 3 in "Using GPS Data to Improve Connectivity."

In and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we are working with the National Park Service and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to safely and carefully outfit 11 elk with GPS collars. We'll use movement data from the GPS collars to track elk movements along nearby roadways, especially Interstate 40 and U.S. 19. The data we gather will help inform strategies, such as wildlife crossings, to mitigate elk-vehicle collisions along these roadways, protecting both wildlife and people. All posts in this series…

Elk herd in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: Liz Hillard

On April 11th, with the assistance of wildlife biologist Justin McVey and other North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission staff, we safely and carefully fitted two elk with GPS collars, completing the deployment of our 11 elk GPS collars.

These collars record and communicate elk locations via satellite, allowing us to study their movements, which is especially important because while elk have been studied for decades in North America, our understanding of elk in the southern Appalachians is limited. Due to over-hunting and loss of habitat, the eastern subspecies of elk that inhabited this region and areas throughout the East were declared extinct in the late 1800s, and little was recorded about their ecology.

With the mission to preserve native plants and animals, the Park Service reintroduced elk to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001-2002, and the now established population is growing and dispersing to areas outside of the park, where busy roadways fragment the landscape, creating barriers to elk movement and increasing elk mortality risk and human safety concerns associated with the severity of elk-vehicle collisions. The frequency of elk-vehicle collisions is likely to increase over time as road networks continue to expand, the elk population continues to grow, and traffic volume increases.

Elk herd. Photo: Liz Hillard

In accordance with our mission at Wildlands Network to reestablish landscape connectivity for wildlife, our research aims to identify road crossing locations and the impacts of roads on elk movement to help guide and inform future planning and mitigation strategies to improve wildlife connectivity and human safety in southern Appalachia.

Elk Road Interactions

Elk in this region do not congregate in large herds or make long seasonal migrations like elk in Western states. Instead, they exist in small groups of 5-50 that shift and change seasonally during the rut (i.e., breeding season, September-October) and when cows are having their calves (June). Therefore, they encounter a diversity of roads that impact movement and survival.

Of the 11 elk I’m currently monitoring, all animals exist in different groups and cross and interact with a diversity of roadways. Currently, three animals reside near Interstate 40 (with one crossing the road using a vehicle underpass), and 6 regularly cross U.S.-19 and the Blue Ridge Parkway (areas with reoccurring elk vehicle collisions).

Map showing elk wandering along or across Interstate 40 near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Map: LIz Hillard, Wildlands Network
Data from GPS collars show elk movements along and across U.S. 19 and the Blue Ridge Parkway near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Map: Liz Hillard, Wildlands Network

We will use this movement data to identify areas along roadways outside the park with a high prevalence of elk crossing, assess how landscape characteristics such as topography influence elk movement across roads, and determine at what times of year elk are more likely to interact with roads to guide future actions to increase connectivity for elk.

Pigeon River Gorge Connectivity Project

Wildlife Scientist Dr. Liz Hillard assists North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission staff in putting a GPS collar on a cow elk outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: Courtesy Liz Hillard

The elk GPS movement data is an import piece of the Pigeon River Gorge Connectivity Project (PRGCP). In partnership with the National Parks Conservation Association (Jeff Hunter, Steve Goodman) and with support from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina Department of Transportation, Tennessee Department of Transportation, National Park Service, and other NGOs, the PRGCP is a multifaceted research project focused on a 28-mile section of Interstate 40 that winds through the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, bisecting the tremendous diversity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the extensive national forest lands—Pisgah and Cherokee national forests—to the northeast. Research using mortality survey information, camera traps, and elk movement data will be used to guide measures to mitigate road effects on wildlife and increase connectivity across the interstate.

Connectivity For All

We will continue to monitor elk movements and collect information for two years. Analysis of the data using multiple statistical techniques will begin when data collection is complete. While our research is focused on elk connectivity, establishing landscape connectivity and safe passage across roads for elk will benefit a diversity of species, including beer, deer, coyotes, and small mammals.

As a biological diversity hotspot, it is imperative that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is connected to surrounding public lands to protect and conserve the biodiversity of the region and to moderate the effects of climate change as wildlife move toward the poles.

More posts from Using GPS Data to Improve Connectivity

  1. Reducing Elk-Vehicle Collisions with GPS Collars, April 18, 2018
  2. Making Roads Safer for Wildlife and People with GPS Elk Collars, December 12, 2018
  3. Studying Elk Movements in Southern Appalachia, May 8, 2019

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