Students in the Conservation Biology class at Catawba College visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park this month to learn about elk conservation. The students camped for two nights in the park and learned about elk research from a wildlife scientist who studies wildlife in the park and in surrounding areas.
Students who participated in the trip were Michaela Gerard, Eleanor King, Trilby Kirk, Taylor Mason, Thomas McClinton, and Keegan Williams, all enrolled in Dr. Joe Poston's Conservation Biology class for the fall semester.
Dr. Liz Hillard, a Wildlife Scientist from Wildlands Network, described her research to study elk movement patterns near Interstate 40 in Pigeon River Gorge. Wildlands Network works to make roads safer for wildlife and for drivers, she said. Although elk were native to North Carolina, through hunting and land development, elk disappeared from the state over a century ago. But in 2001, elk were returned to Great Smoky Mountains National Park when animals were transferred here from western populations, she said.
"The whole experience was eye opening and really showed me how great conservation efforts can be," said student Michaela Gerard. "It may take a long time to get to where you want to be, but all the experience in the end is so worth it."
Hillard also shared details about her training, education, and work experiences. "This trip opened my eyes to the opportunities I might find and makes me want to gain more experiences," said student Trilby Kirk. "I feel even more driven now to find a career where I can do field work and hands-on projects that make a difference."
The students also met with a park ranger, who described his work protecting park visitors and wildlife. Student Taylor Mason said, "Our class field trip has forever changed my outlook on how I view those who tend and care for the National Park System."
Poston planned the trip after visiting the park a year ago. "It was such an amazing experience that I immediately knew I wanted students to have a chance to witness this phenomenal natural event," he said.
The students said that they found the experience with elk to be moving. Eleanor King, who has visited the park many times with her family, said, "The Great Smoky Mountains area has always been one of my favorite places to camp, and being able to go back and see conservation biology in action greatly added to my experiences in the area. From talking with a wildlife biologist and park rangers to getting up at the crack of dawn for elk photography opportunities, the experiences I've had on this trip have helped solidify my understanding of topics I've learned about in class, while allowing me to step back and further appreciate the extensive efforts that keep Great Smoky Mountains National Park the awe-inspiring place that it is."