Banff elk staying out of town

By: Cathy Ellis

  |  Posted: Thursday, Dec 22, 2011 06:00 am

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Banff’s famous habituated elk seem to be getting wilder.

A recent survey shows there is potential for the elk population to grow again based on high calf survival, but it also reveals they are currently spending less time in town looking for food and seeking safe haven from predators.

Tom Hurd, a wildlife biologist for Banff National Park, said the distribution of elk is changing, with a larger portion migrating east and west of town, and fewer year-round townsite resident elk, known as townies.

“Elk are interacting more with the natural environment and less with people on sidewalks. In other words, the herd is becoming wilder and less habituated,” he said.

“The elk are distributing more broadly and are not as concentrated around the townsite as in previous years. This indicates some success in achieving the original goals of the elk management strategy.”

Last spring’s aerial count between the east gate of Banff National Park and Lake Louse recorded 263 elk, compared to 240 in 2010, 266 in 2009 and 254 in 2008.

But the fall ground survey in mid-November, which is used to determine the number of calves, recorded 231 individual elk, with 37 calves for every 100 females. That’s a higher calf survival rate than previous years.

Hurd said the spring count shows the population has been fairly stable over the past four years, but the fall classification indicates there is potential for population growth based on a higher number of surviving calves.

“This means that the elk are doing very well and the population has potential for a fair amount of growth,” he said. “It also suggests a significant amount of the population didn’t experience a lot of predation from natural predators over the last summer season.”

The Banff townsite has essentially been declared an elk-free zone since 1999 as part of Parks Canada’s elk management strategy to reduce elk attacks and restore a natural ecological process.

The 1990s saw unnaturally high elk numbers as they sought a safe haven from predators and were attracted to urban-style gardens and lawns, which had been described as crack cocaine for elk.

At the height of the population explosion, large numbers of elk also damaged the environment by destroying areas of aspen and willow which are key to the survival of songbirds and beavers.

At the time, there was an average of five elk attacks a year and as many as 100 aggressive encounters annually, including an attack on a toddler as he played in his backyard in 1998.

There have not been any contact attacks in the past three years, although there were still 21 aggressive incidents this year, including bluff charges and defensive behaviour.

Hurd said that based on the potential for population growth, Parks Canada plans to continue with recommendations that came out of the now-disbanded montane advisory group.

He said the plan is to continue with a limited cull of up to 20 of the most habituated resident elk. Fourteen elk were shot in the winter of 2010-2011, 17 in 2009-1010 and 16 in 2008-2009.

“It’s important to note we do this cull with support and assistance from Stoney Nakoda and Siksika First Nations,” said Hurd.

“A portion of the elk are provided for food and ceremonial purposes, while other animals are left in the environment for predators and scavengers.”

Another key component is to continue with temporary fencing of underpasses this winter to keep elk on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway where they are more likely to be hunted by wolves and cougars.

Parks will also continue with an aversive conditioning program to move any elk out of town prior to the calving season and fall rut, which are times of year when the ungulates can be more dangerous.

As well, Parks will work towards improving and maintaining wildlife corridors around the townsite to ensure elk and their natural predators stay protected.

Mike McIvor, president of the Bow Valley Naturalists and a previous member of the disbanded montane advisory group, said he does not have a problem with the status quo plan for elk management.

“I think there was what seemed to be a fairly reasonable elk management strategy developed that was intended to be in place over the long term, although adjusted as required,” he said.

“My main concern, though, was the entire emphasis was on elk as a problem, instead of people as the ones who created the problems… the whole issue of elk attractants, elk landscaping and elk food in town.”

Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said she has certainly noticed a dramatic decrease in the number of elk incidents compared to 10 years ago when elk were a common sight on sidewalks and yards.

“In the past, it wasn’t unusual that you had to cross the street walking home to give the elk some space and that certainly doesn’t seem to be common anymore,” she said.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard about an attack.”

Sorensen said fewer habituated elk makes it safer for the townsite, which is home to about 8,200 residents and hosts close to 3.1 million tourists a year.

“Reducing the interaction between wildlife and people is important,” she said. “It’s best for tourists if they see wildlife from their vehicles.”


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