We assessed the potential for reestablishing elk (Cervus elaphus) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), USA, by estimating vital rates of experimentally released animals from 2001 to 2006. Annual survival rates for calves ranged from 0.333 to 1.0 and averaged 0.592. Annual survival for subadult and adult elk (i.e., ≥1 yr of age) ranged from 0.690 to 0.933, depending on age and sex. We used those and other vital rates to model projected population growth and viability using a stochastic individual-based model. The annual growth rate (λ) of the modeled population over a 25-year period averaged 0.996 and declined from 1.059 the first year to 0.990 at year 25. The modeled population failed to attain a positive 25-year mean growth rate in 46.0% of the projections. Poor calf recruitment was an important determinant of low population growth. Predation by black bears (Ursus americanus) was the dominant calf mortality factor. Most of the variance of growth projections was due to demographic variation resulting from the small population size (n = 61). Management actions such as predator control may help increase calf recruitment, but our projections suggest that the GSMNP elk population may be at risk for some time because of high demographic variation.
Additional publication details
Demographics of an experimentally released population of elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park