Elk image affects control measures

Much has been written about the elk population explosion in various parts of the province.

Ahead of the Heard

Much has been written about the elk population explosion in various parts of the province. Essentially it boils down to not enough hunters and not enough predators to control the elk numbers. Add into that meddlesome government wildlife managers with their penchant to either control or procrastinate on the issue and you have a sure-fire recipe for the problem getting worse. However, what may be worse in seeing the problem resolved is that elk are pretty and majestic looking animals. That makes any widespread and intensive elk cull a public relations nightmare for government officials and politicians.

The elk problem has reached its peak on and near the Suffield Military Range in southeast Alberta. It is estimated that up to 8,000 elk are roaming around that area alone. They are descended from about 200 head that were transplanted onto the range after the feral horse herd was removed. One ponders what professional government wildlife managers were thinking – replacing one problem species with another – apparently they were unaware that the elk would reproduce and quickly expand without significant predation. Now the issue has been taken over by a public perception problem.

The reality is that we live in the most highly-urbanized province in Canada and most city folks cannot (will not?) understand that these majestic animals can be a problem to the ranching community. They don’t see the damage that is done to pastures, fencing and hay supplies; the most any of them see are images of pretty elk peacefully grazing in some field. One only has to see hordes of tourists stopping to take pictures of elk grazing along roads in parks to understand how urban people see the issue.

Government politicians and their party spin doctors would know that any wholesale public cull of elk would backfire on the government in power. With a general election due within the next couple of years – you can guarantee there will be no elk cull program. No matter how tightly controlled, any large scale elk cull would see images of terrified elk and their calves being herded into enclosures to be trucked away to their demise. A couple of accidental deaths or injuries, and screams of outrage and gruesome images would be on the front page of every urban daily in the country. No government politician wants to have to deal with that public and media backlash. Better to see a few local ranchers inconvenienced rather than alienating thousands of sensitive city voters.

As expected the Government Minister responsible has stated that no wholesale elk cull will be approved. Instead the problem specifically at the Suffield range will be dealt with by increasing the number of hunting licenses to 300 head. Increasing the hunting opportunities has actually been happening over the past three years, but with over a thousand elk born every year that increased hunting is having a minimal impact. Part of the problem is that the elk licenses being issued are mostly for antlerless elk, those being the cows. In theory that should reduce the breeding herd, in reality most hunters prefer to hunt for bull elk being they would like to hang trophy antlers on their den walls. That reduces the enthusiasm of some hunters. Even hunters that want to hunt cow elk it’s not an easy exercise, as they are confronted with restricted movement on an active military base.

One wonders if there can be a resolution to the elk plague at Suffield. You can expect the government to eventually throw compensation money at the affected ranchers to shut them up – as a first step. Government Ministers will of course announce that a further study is needed to find out what is causing the problem – that will put off any real action for a couple of years. Perhaps the government should allow an unlimited bull elk hunt to put more pressure on the Suffield herd. It may be risky, but is there a way to re-introduce wolf packs onto the base, perhaps using predator-proof electric fencing to keep them away from neighbouring ranches. Is there a possible sterilization protocol that can be carried at a distance through feed, salt or aircraft? Without a robust wholesale cull or hunt, any alternative measures should be considered.

In the end the elk issue will continue to be ruled by the government’s fear of public perception. One only has to remember the government’s politically expedient decision on their ban of elk hunt farms in Alberta to understand where their perceptions are coming from.