Missoula, Mont.–Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials have notified the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation that the “experimental” status of the park’s restored elk herd has been officially lifted, clearing the way for permanent management of elk in and around the park.

RMEF is the largest financier of the park’s 10-year elk restoration project, with more than $800,000 in contributions.

Kim Delozier, RMEF conservation program manager, said, “This is important because it’s a formal federal declaration that our elk restoration efforts in the North Carolina section of the park have been deemed a success.”

Prior to joining the RMEF staff, Delozier was the longtime supervisory wildlife biologist in the park. He worked closely with RMEF and others to make reality of a common dream–returning a wild elk herd to the native but long-empty habitat of the Great Smoky Mountains. He says that without the efforts of RMEF, especially its volunteers, wild free-ranging elk would not be in North Carolina today.

Elk were extirpated from the region some 200 years ago.

“Local RMEF members approached me about elk restoration as far back as 1990, so this has been a long process and a tremendous amount of work by many people,” said Delozier. “During my time in the park, we had a number of restoration projects for other species. Some were controversial. Others were relatively quiet. But the elk project was really a people project. This was an effort and animal that everyone wanted to support. The people made it happen. People love to see large wild animals and elk fit that need.”

In an “experimental release,” the first elk were reintroduced into Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001. Today the herd is healthy at about 140 animals.

Elk have been a popular addition to the park and are associated with significant economic benefits through tourism. Cataloochee Valley, where elk were originally released, now receives approximately twice the visitation than it did prior to elk restoration.

The herd’s experimental status was lifted when National Park Service officials on Oct. 20, 2011, approved a “finding of no significant impact” of the environmental assessment on a proposed plan for managing a permanent herd of elk in the park. Research indicates that the population is sustainable, has minimal impacts on the park’s resources and the human-elk conflicts are manageable.

Going forward, the park’s objective is to maintain a permanent elk population within park boundaries that is self-sustaining and allows only acceptable impacts to park resources.

The park’s elk plan also transitions elk management responsibility outside the park to the appropriate tribal, state or federal agency with jurisdiction over wildlife on lands where elk occur. Delozier said some elk do currently inhabit areas outside of park boundaries. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has started discussions on developing its own elk management plan, which could bring limited elk hunting opportunities to the state in the future.

David Allen, RMEF president and CEO, said, “The possibility of additional elk hunting opportunities for the public in the eastern U.S. is one more reason to celebrate. The more people can connect through hunting with the land, elk, other wildlife and their habitat, the more folks we’ll have on board to help sustain America’s conservation movement.”

Allen added that RMEF has pledged continued support for area conservation agencies involved in elk management or habitat stewardship.

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