Standing inside trailers, breathing steam and shuffling, members of the first elk herd to set hoof on the southern Appalachian highlands in 150 years express a deceptive calm in their large, olive-black eyes.
Likewise, Kim Delozier, the man largely responsible for hauling this captured 25-head herd from Land Between the Lakes, Ky., to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, is also trying to contain his anxiety.
Mr. Delozier is a wildlife biologist with the park. If he had his way, only a few rangers would now be releasing the herd here on the Cataloochee Valley floor, just west of Asheville, N.C. Instead, an estimated 600 people are chatting and blowing steam off cups of cider, waiting for a glimpse of the historic release.
Much of the publicity over reintroducing ousted wild animals to their ancient homesteads centers on wolves in the West.But here in the Smokies, Delozier has helped turn the park into a repatriation petri dish, vying to bring back otters, peregrine falcons and even, unsuccessfully, red wolves.
Today's release is the beginning of the boldest experiment yet: to see if elk can again thrive - or even survive - on their old stomping grounds.If this gambit works, the mournful bugle call of rutting elk will once again echo from these smoky promontories. Indeed, the return of this herd of "charismatic megafauna" marks a major milestone for hunters, conservationists, and biologists in the East: It's the first introduction of major game animals into a national park.
Delozier has a lot to worry about. There's nothing to keep the big animals from just walking out of the park, onto private lands. It's true they face no natural predation here, though that itself could lead to overcrowding. "This is not a simple task," he tells a crowd of early arrivals huddled by gas heaters.
So far, the elk - which originally hail from Canada - have spent two stressful weeks being probed, injected, and tagged. The males had their sturdy racks sawn off for safer travel. The drivers who brought them here had strict orders: Stop only for gas and food.
Park veterinarian Mike Stiles, wearing muddy Carhartt coveralls, says not to worry. The 500- to 600-pound animals look healthy."This is a great day for North Carolina," he says.
To be sure, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky, and, in December, Tennessee, have also brought back banished elk herds onto million-acre tracts.But states like Georgia and Virginia, which have held off on reintroducing elk, will watch this experiment more closely because of its tight scientific controls.
The five-year, $1 million project has largely been financed by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a conservation group run by hunters that has sponsored similar efforts elsewhere. "[Repatriation] can work and it's the right thing to do," says Ron White, a regional leader for the foundation, pointing out that Kentucky has gleaned up to $20 million from tourists trailing its new herd. But it's not just hunters - who hope to one day be able to hunt elk outside the park - who are anxious to bring wildlife back.
Ray Caldwell, a Scottish-knit cap on his noggin, is among the first in line to see the release. A fit octogenarian who loves to hike, Mr. Caldwell prefers his staff to a rifle. When his great-grandfather put down a claim in this valley in 1836, "hunters and herders" had just about cleared the forest - and run off the elk and other species.
Today, this creek-crossed valley no longer has settlers - just hikers, deer, and wild turkey. And now a herd of elk.
Still, not everyone thinks this elk release is a good idea. The park has had trouble in its efforts with red wolves and native brook trout. Critics say there may not be enough open forage ground to satisfy a big herd.
Cattle ranchers have had the most to say about the plan. They're worried about the elk mingling with cattle and spreading disease. Officials, however, say they expect few problems.
As the valley warms, it's time to let the elk out. With a loud clatter of hooves on sheet iron, the first four stately animals sprint from the trailer through a chute. Two lumber into a grove of coniferous trees, disappearing over a small ridge. Two more stand dazed for a minute, seemingly transfixed by the humans looking down at them, welcoming them home with soft applause.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society