When it comes to the Cataloochee Valley, Elizabeth Hillard has spent much time in places where few humans now tread. Logging long stretches – sometimes days – in the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Western Carolina University biology graduate student is performing research that will help park personnel manage resources in response to a growing population of elk.
“I really had to pay attention to navigation, constantly making sure I knew where my location was, because at some point I did have to get out of the woods,” said Hillard, who always carried a GPS device and a park radio. Traveling solo, Hillard saw a lot of wildlife, including bear, grouse and turkeys, but it was the elk, which “were everywhere,” that caught her attention.
Hillard spent the past year tromping over approximately 50 square miles of parkland as part of an ambitious project to improve understanding of how the animals use park resources, including what they eat and their preferred shelter.
“We know that elk populations can swell to unnatural levels that have a negative impact on the environment,” said Joe Yarkovich, a wildlife biologist with the park who focuses on the elk program. At Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance, where elk have no natural predators, the growing herds have destroyed aspen groves and willow stands, Yarkovich said. The depletions have had a cascading effect – for example, the beaver population dwindled along with the willows – that the park is now addressing. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, “We’re trying to get on the front end of it so that we will see those impacts before they take effect and cause much harm to the environment,” Yarkovich said. “There is no aspen here, but we have other vegetation types that we would hate to see taken down to nothing. We need to be monitoring it to see if it is happening.”
The release of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, began in February 2001 with 25 elk imported from Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, another 27 of the animals were imported from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. All were released in the Cataloochee area, where many have stayed, though some have migrated west to Cades Cove – animals like the open grassy areas available in both those locations, Hillard said. The precise number of elk is unknown, although a rough estimate puts the population at approximately 150 animals, including those who have traveled outside the park boundaries, according to Yarkovich. Some elk wear radio-collars and are monitored so biologists can learn more about their movements and life spans.
Hillard developed the elk project with her adviser, WCU biology professor Laura DeWald, who mentioned the Cataloochee elk during a brainstorming session of possible thesis topics. While reading the park’s environmental assessment of the elk, Hillard saw that future goals included vegetation monitoring and trail mapping. DeWald and Hillard met with Yarkovich and other park personnel and hammered out a role for Hillard, who developed a methodology and project plan that the park approved. Hillard then applied for grant funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for her project and in fall 2012 was awarded more than $11,000 in funding for the project.
Hillard’s research has taken a three-pronged approach. She spent the winter and spring of 2012 calculating elk densities in different forest types, which involved locating, hiking and mapping approximately 78 miles of elk trails. Using visual observations such as elk tracks and fecal pellets, Hillard classified the trails as high, moderate or low use. From this information, and with the aid of computer mapping technology, she was able to project elk densities throughout several forest types in her study area. Combining information on vegetation and elk density, Hillard’s research will shed light on habitat types the elk select.
In July and August, Hillard studied a collection of plots with varying habitat and elk densities, collecting information on overstory, understory, shrub level, the herbaceous level, forest floor and litter-soil level. The third component of the study is an analysis of the principal diet of the park’s elk. To accomplish this, Hillard collected elk fecal pellets in the spring, summer and fall, which she has frozen in storage. After she completes collecting the winter sample, she will send the pellets to the Wildlife Habitat Nutrition Laboratory at Washington State University for analysis.
Hillard plans to complete her thesis – which will require drawing conclusions from a mountain of data – and graduate in time to enter a doctoral program in wildlife ecology and management in the fall. The Southern Illinois University undergraduate who earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology considers the work a contribution to her field plans to publish her thesis in a professional journal.
“This research highlights methods that wildlife managers can use that are both time and cost effective and allow for better understanding of wildlife habitat use, which will allow for a management plan that maintains a healthy self-sustaining elk population at a level that has minimal impacts to park resources,” Hillard said.
A nontraditional student, Hillard has professional skills gained from years as a field technician and classroom teacher that have allowed her to perform at a high level. Previous field experience has put her in close proximity to swamp rabbits, beavers, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and grizzly bears. She worked with students as a high school science teacher at Wellspring Academy, a residential weight-loss boarding school near Brevard, and as a camp counselor at a Wellspring summer camp. “Liz is exceptional,” DeWald said. “It’s refreshing to get a student like Liz who works so hard. Long hours in the park under rugged conditions didn’t faze her. For me, working with her is a treat.”
DeWald’s advisees routinely take advantage of WCU’s geographic location and undertake projects that contribute to the efforts of external agencies including the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and N.C. Cooperative Extension. Another of her current students, for instance, is at work on a fire ecology project based in the park. Such arrangements are mutually beneficial, giving students the opportunity to apply their education in the field and affording strapped agencies high-quality work for minimal financial investment. “Agencies are having to do more with less. This work in the park needed to be done. To have someone like Liz is a godsend to them,” DeWald said. “Our students are involved in acquiring knowledge that can be used to inform resource management decisions.”
“I’m not one to turn down free research,” agreed Yarkovich. “Liz is really taking a load off of my plate. I know the level of work she’s doing and I’m really pleased with it.”
Not only will Hillard’s research inform the park’s wildlife biologists about the elks’ habits, but it also will establish protocols and methodology for future sampling. “Five years from now somebody will come back and do it again so we can track changes over longer periods of time, and I’ll hand them this packet and say, ‘This is what needs to be done,’ and it will be what Liz has done for us. She really is setting it up long term,” Yarkovich said.
Hillard’s vegetation research contributes one piece to the larger puzzle of elk in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Other components include overall animal and herd health, dispersal patterns, disease monitoring and more. “We’re trying to get a big picture for everything that’s going on regarding carrying capacity for elk in the Smokies,” Yarkovich said.
Hillard’s previous professional life has taught her that she wants a combination of classroom and field work, and so she is aiming for an academic career of performing research and teaching at the college level. Wherever that goal takes her, Hillard will remember her time in Cataloochee as a sometimes magical and spiritual experience. “I fell in love with that valley and got to know it really well,” she said. “It’s going to be one of my favorite places forever.”