Elk Habitat Suitability Map for North Carolina

Although eastern elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis) were extirpated from the eastern United States in the 19th century, they were successfully reintroduced in the North Carolina portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the early 2000s. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) is evaluating the prospect of reintroducing the species in other locations in the state to augment recreational opportunities. As a first step in the process, we created a state-wide elk habitat suitability map. We used medium-scale data sets and a two-component approach to iden- tify areas of high biological value for elk and exclude from consideration areas where elk-human conflicts were more likely. Habitats in the state were categorized as 66% unsuitable, 16.7% low, 17% medium, and <1% high suitability for elk. The coastal plain and Piedmont contained the most suitable habitat, but prospective reintroduction sites were largely excluded from consideration due to extensive agricultural activities and pervasiveness of secondary roads. We ranked 31 areas (≥ 500 km2) based on their suitability for reintroduction. The central region of the state contained the top five ranked areas. The Blue Ridge Mountains, where the extant population of elk occurs, was ranked 21st. Our work provides a benchmark for decision makers to evaluate potential consequences and trade-offs associated with the selection of prospective elk reintroduction sites.

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