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Got Elk? Why yes, thanks!

October 31, 2012

By Karen Swain

I’m not often able to get outdoors as part of my job as the Museum’s Web editor, but this past weekend I was privileged to participate in the “Got Elk?” Educator Trek. In the two days we spent in the Smoky Mountains I not only learned about the natural history of the area, I gained a new respect for our Museum educators. Trip leaders Mike Dunn and Melissa Dowland packed an incredible number of activities and experiences into the two days, and kept the group entertained and learning all the while.

Sourwood tree

Sourwood has lance-shaped leaves that turn pale red to scarlet in the fall.

We left Raleigh just before 4 pm on Friday and I rode shotgun with Mike in the new van. During the five hour drive Mike asked me to identify trees and birds along the highway, and when I pleaded ignorance he told me what they were and a few characteristics to help me identify them. By the end of the trip I had learned to identify Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, Virginia Pines, Tulip Poplars, Sourwood and Black Walnut trees, the invasive Paulownia or Royal Princess Tree, and a type of Miscanthus, an invasive grass.

We arrived at our lodge near Lake Junaluska hours after dark and ready to retire to our rooms, where most of us crashed in anticipation of our early morning wake-up time. Saturday morning I awoke at an uncharacteristic 5:30 am and blearily dressed and packed for the day. By the time I got to the dining room at 6 am Mike and Melissa had breakfast, and more importantly, coffee, waiting for us. Half an hour and two cups of coffee later I boarded the van for the trip to Cataloochee Valley.

Just before we got to the gate to the valley we encountered our first elk, three bachelor bulls grazing in the meadow near the Ranger’s cabin. The largest bull, identified as #17 by his ear tag, had once been the dominant bull. We were lucky enough to see several Wild Turkeys flying down from their roosts on the hill above us. We snapped photos and chattered excitedly, asking Mike questions until the gate was opened.

Young bull elk grazing

Young bull elk grazing. Photo by Mike Dunn

We drove up the valley to where the main herd was grazing. Two young bulls were just across the stream from the road, and we watched until they both crossed the stream and walked out in front of an SUV and across the road to join the main herd.

The National Park Service reintroduced 25 elk to the Cataloochee Valley in 2001 and added another 27 elk in 2002. Since then the elk population in and around the valley has grown to about 140-150 individuals. The main herd we encountered consisted of 25 cows, calves, and young bulls, and one dominant bull.

We watched the herd graze for a while then drove down to the end of the valley, then on to our mid-morning appointment with Ranger Susan Sachs. Susan introduced us to another Ranger, Joe, and a Student Conservation Association intern, Austin, at the old school house. Joe and Austin gave us an introduction to the elk in the valley, and answered a slew of questions from the group. I asked about the light guard hairs on the pelt they passed around and learned that they are hollow with a honeycombed cross-section, which helps provide insulation. I also learned that they didn’t have any concerns about inbreeding in the group, and Joe mentioned another reintroduction program that had succeeded with a starting pool of only nine individuals.

Wooly adelgid activity

Trying to take a sip of water through the perforated straw

We said goodbye to Joe and Austin and followed Susan into a grove of hemlocks. Hemlocks in the region have been devastated by Hemlock Wooly Adelgids (Adelges tsugae), a tiny exotic invasive pest. We paired up, and each pair received a small cup of water, a drinking straw, and a push pin. The person with the cup and straw played the part of the tree, while the person with the push pin played the part of the adelgid’s long mouth parts. My partner, Frances, made a couple of holes in my drinking straw (representing the tree’s phloem, which carries nutrients) and then I tried to take a sip of water. I was able to, but only by using quite a bit of suction. Then Frances made a few more holes in the straw, and my second attempt to sip was a virtual bust. This activity demonstrated how something as tiny as an adelgid can make a dramatic difference to a tree.

We learned that several measures are being taken to curtail the damage from adelgids in the park, from spraying with insecticidal soap to injecting infected trees with insecticide to using predator beetles that only feed on the adelgids. This last is the most promising method for large-scale management, unfortunately it’s also the most expensive; each predator beetle costs a dollar, and several million of the beetles might be required to control the adelgid infestation. You can learn more about the problem and how to help by visiting

Micro snail

Micro snail. Photo by Mike Dunn

After a hearty lunch we hiked upstream along the Pretty Hollow Gap Trail to the site of our next activity, a snail survey. Snails are sensitive to acid rain because they need calcium for their shells, and calcium is leached from the soil as a result of acid rain. By surveying the number and variety of snails in the area they hope to learn whether acid rain is affecting the park. We were given a quick list of tips on how to find snails and turned loose to sift through the leaves and other detritus on the forest floor, looking for snails and snail shells. I looked on enviously as other participants found piles of snail shells, live snails, and in one case a salamander, while I kept coming up empty. Eventually I found two micro-snail shells to contribute to the survey.

Lichen activity

Brandon doing the lichen survey

Once Susan and part of the group had identified the snails we found, we all headed back down the trail for our next activity, a lichen study. Lichen is sensitive to acid rain and pollution, more or less depending on the surface area of the lichen. The study is being used to try to determine if more sensitive groups of lichens are being replaced by more tolerant forms.

Lichen is a composite organism consisting of an alga living symbiotically on a fungus. The alga provides food through photosynthesis while the fungus provides a home for the alga to live on. We learned that there are three basic categories of lichen forms, crusty crustose, leaf-like foliose, and shaggy fruticose. We split up into groups and each group was assigned a tree to survey. We took measurements, recorded weather observations, then attached a survey sheet transparency to the side of our tree. The transparency sheet consisted of ten circles in each section of a 3×3 grid, and for each circle we had to record the type of lichen, moss, or bare bark or growing in its boundaries.

elk herd grazing in Cataloochee Valley

The main herd grazing in the valley

We concluded our first day with more elk watching, and also watching the people watching the elk! By this time the roads were full, and several cows from the herd had gotten quite close to the roadside, generating excitement among the crowds. A group of volunteers known as the Bugle Corps help to control the crowds and prevent people from getting too close to the animals.

We drove back to town and got pizza for dinner, which we took back to the lodge to eat. Following our excellent pizza we gathered in the living area for “Elkoween,” where each participant was dressed as their favorite flora or fauna. Melissa won the costume contest with her enthusiastic portrayal of a wooly adelgid. A woman of many talents, she closed out the evening by playing her guitar for us.

Next up: Got Elk? Day Two: Jackpot!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2012 5:24 pm

    Reblogged this on NC Museum of Natural Sciences Blogs and commented:

    by Karen Swain

  2. November 9, 2012 8:57 am

    Hi there. I live in Toronto, and recently, my wife, Jean, and I came upon an adult Red-tailed Hawk in Markham, Ontario. We have read that stalking a hawk is no easy task,that you have to sneak up on them when they are looking the other way. Well, this Hawk was only looking one way when it landed, and that was right at us! Fortunately, we had our camera with us and got some good pictures and video. Among the video, a scene where the Red-tailed Hawk goes after a Great Blue Heron in a tree. We have posted them for anyone interested at:

    • November 9, 2012 11:21 am

      Hi Bob, nice post! You got some great images. Congratulations on getting so close to the hawk.


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