Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Natural Resources

Major Professor

Joseph D. Clark

Committee Members

Richard B. Chandler, Lisa I. Muller, Sheng-I Yang, Justin M. McVey


In an effort to restore extirpated elk to their previous range, 52 elk were reintroduced to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) in North Carolina during 2001 and 2002. Since their reintroduction, elk numbers have increased and their range has extended beyond GRSM boundaries. My primary research objectives included estimating population abundance, apparent survival, per capita recruitment, and population growth rate of elk in North Carolina. I used spatially explicit capture-recapture (SECR) models based on fecal DNA to identify individual elk and estimate population abundance and growth in the region. Technicians and I walked a series of transects throughout the region over 3 winter field seasons (2020–2022) and collected elk pellets encountered along these transects. These data were incorporated into both closed and open population SECR models to estimate elk densities, abundance, and population vital rates over the three-year period.

The top performing single-sex closed SECR models for males and females estimated density separately by year and as a function of the scaled distance to primary field with densities decreasing as the distance to field increased. The total realized abundance estimates of combined males and females in the study area were 179 elk (95% CI = 149–215) in 2020, 220 elk (95% CI = 188–256) in 2021, and 240 elk (95% CI = 207–279) in 2022.

The top open population SECR model estimated both apparent survival (φ [phi]) and population growth rate as functions of sex and year. Mean φ [phi] for males were 0.682 (95% CI = 0.317–0.908) for 2020-21 and 0.339 (95% CI = 0.152–0.596) for 2021-22. Mean φ [phi] for females were 0.953 (95% CI = 0.830–1.000) for 2020-21 and 0.829 (95% CI = 0.601–1.000) for 2021-22. Mean population growth rate estimates (λ [lambda]) for females were 1.559 (95% CI = 1.162–2.091) for 2020-21 and 1.122 (95% CI = 0.876–1.437) for 2021-22. Mean λ [lambda] for males were 1.127 (95% CI = 0.806–1.575) for 2020-21 and 0.811 (95% CI = 0.566–1.163) for 2021-22. This population likely could support limited sport hunting; continued monitoring is recommended.

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