Elk (Cervus elaphus L.) habitat selection in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

WCU Author/Contributor (non-WCU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Elizabeth M. Hillard (Creator)
Western Carolina University (WCU )
Web Site: http://library.wcu.edu/
Laura DeWald

Abstract: Evaluating how the established herd of elk (Cervus elaphus L.) is using forested areas in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is important for the health and management of the elk, and for the protection of the diverse flora within the park. I assessed habitat selection of forest cover type, understory density class, disturbance use history, and distance to nonforested areas using GIS raster layers and fecal pellet counts. Elk trails were mapped and fecal pellet counts were used to index habitat selection. Plots were established to determine if there were relationships between elk selection and habitat components related to food and cover. Elk in GSMNP selected successional and floodplain forest types, ericaceous understory classes of light to medium density, areas with concentrated settlement use history, and forests close to areas of open fields and recent human disturbance. These selected areas have histories of disturbance and contained preferred forage that was produced by more open canopies and that lacked overly dense understory vegetation. Woody browse species were also an important factor driving elk habitat selection. Elk browsed 10 of the 28 identified browse species in greater proportions than their availability. Pellet group density correlated positively with woody browse use. Species specific aspects of browse appear to be more important than browse abundance. Plots with one or more pellet groups had relative browse use in greater proportions then browse available but plots containing zero pellet groups had relative browse use less then browse available despite having the highest abundance of browse due to fewer preferred browse species. Availability of species specific browse also appears to be a driver for forest type selection with successional forests containing the highest percentage of elk preferred browse species. Elk in GSMNP are selecting forested areas with understory classes of light/medium densities of Kalmia that provide adequate cover and allow easier movement and ground cover for forage and not selecting understory classes with heavy densities of Rhododendron and Kalmia where movement costs are high and the herbaceous layer is sparse. In summary, elk in GSMNP are selecting areas that have more open forest canopies maintained by disturbances, and selecting undisturbed continuous forests less because they do not contain preferred or abundant forage. Future monitoring that detects pellets in more closed continuous forests could indicate depletion of food sources in preferred younger forests indicating that more intensive habitat management strategies should be considered. This understanding of resource selection by elk will be used to implement management practices that promote a healthy self-sustaining elk population and the monitoring of sensitive park resources.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2013
Cervus elaphus, elk, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, habitat selection
Elk -- Habitat -- Selection -- Great Smoky Mountains National Park (N.C. and Tenn.)
Elk -- Behavior -- Great Smoky Mountains National Park (N.C. and Tenn.)

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