Biologists search for elk in Cataloochee Valley

By DeeAnna Haney | Jun 16, 2014

As an early morning fog lifted off the Smoky Mountains, wildlife biologist Joe Yarkovich scanned the vast field before him with binoculars. It was around 7 a.m. Wednesday and he was in search of a three-day-old elk calf camouflaged against the tall grasses of Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This is his favorite month out of the year, Yarkovich admitted, because early June is the prime time when elk give birth, and it's his job to find them.

It's an important job too, as the future of the herd depends on calf survival. Because of that, Yarkovich is very busy this time of year, spending much of his time searching for newborn calves.

"If we're able to catch every calf then we put a collar on every calf, but that never happens," Yarkovich said.

Female elk, called cows, often hide their calves in thick vegetation deep in the woods of the valley, making it difficult for biologists to find them. Even though they are born around 30 to 40 pounds, they blend in easily with their surroundings. There have been times when Yarkovich has nearly stepped on a calf because it was so well camouflaged.

Cows typically feed their young once in the morning and then leave the scentless calf hidden and alone until much later in the day.

"That's part of the reason she stays away. Otherwise, she'd be drawing attention to it, putting down scent, ruining vegetation," Yarkovich said.

But that doesn't mean mom is very far off.

"In recent years, the moms have gotten more aggressive," Yarkovich said, adding that nationally, far more people are injured by elk attacks than bear attacks annually.

For that reason, he always takes at least one other biologist or intern with him on his missions to collar and microchip the baby elk. While he takes measurements, weight and other information, another person shoots at any aggressive cows with a paintball gun.

"So far, it's always been enough to keep them at bay," Yarkovich said. "But if you hear me say, 'Run,' run back to the back of the truck."

Instead of using bright orange tags on the elk's ears, nowadays biologists insert a microchip about the size of a grain of rice between the elk's shoulder blades. The microchip, called a Passive Identification Transponder (PIT), is magnetically charged with a 16-digit identification number that stays with that elk for life.

Baby elk are also fitted with a special elastic collar that allows biologists to track the animal. Because newborn elk gain about two pounds each day during their first year of life, the collar is designed to stretch and break away when it becomes too tight or gets caught on a tree branch.

If the collar is motionless for more than two hours, it sends out a signal to biologists.

Shane Kinsey, a biological technician dedicated to the elk, along with interns Thomas Sutton and Patrick Helm, were on hand to assist Yarkovich that morning with catching the newborn calf.

Helm looked out over the field using a thermal unit, a device that helps biologists detect animals when they are difficult to see in thick vegetation. Sure enough, a small white blur appeared in the lens, showing the elk calf lying in the tall grass.

The small male calf frolicked a little in the field near the mother, showing off its white spots and gangly legs. Though ever observant of the people nearby, the calf's mother finally disappeared into the woods, but Yarkovich knew she wasn't far off.

"She can either see it or be within earshot to hear it squeal," he said.

The group of four closed in on the calf in a circle and covered its eyes to keep it from panicking. The nearly 40-pound male calf, which will tip the scales at up to 800 pounds when full grown, laid completely motionless, which is a defense mechanism, Yarkovich said.

The microchip inserted, biologists quickly took measurements and other notes on three-day-old calf. After about 10 minutes, they removed the blindfold and left the calf in the field.

Finding the calf in the middle of the open field was a pleasant surprise to the team, who are used to more in-depth and lengthy hikes to find the babies.

On Tuesday, for example, the team of biologists canvassed a wide area of the thick wooded valley in search of a cow they believed was about to give birth. But after several hours, they lost her trail.

That's just the way it works out sometimes, but the experience is enough for interns like Sutton and Helm to keep coming back for more.

"Who with their jobs can say it's a bad day when you're hiking all day long?" Sutton said.

There are "a handful" of other cows that are ready to calf any day now, said Yarkovich.

Getting grants

Because catching and monitoring calves is so important, it takes some outside help to keep equipment up to date.

This year, Friends of the Smokies, a nonprofit that helps protect and maintain the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, received a $13,000 grant from Charter Communications to purchase 12 radio collars and two receivers.

Patti Michel, Charter's director of regional communications, tagged along with Yarkovich to see exactly how the equipment purchased with the grant money is being used.

The grant fits into Charter's charitable giving program as well as the company's mission when it comes to providing communication and it's something Michel would like to see continue.

"We thought, well, we're a technology company so why not fund something that will help the herd, grow wildlife, help track the herd and give back to the community at the same time?" Michel said.

Radio-transmitters are one of the most useful instruments to help track animal locations and survival. This is true, not only for elk, but other wildlife species as well.  Information gained from the use of radio telemetry equipment has been vital in making short and long-term management decisions regarding bears, elk and bats within the Park, and continues to be an integral part of ongoing wildlife monitoring and management efforts.

“We find it very satisfying to have a healthy elk herd. Our job is to help maintain that by giving them the supplies they need,” says Jim Hart, Friends of the Smokies.

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