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Banff's elk population declining

“We have to remember that wildlife populations are always fluctuating and dynamic due to several different reasons.”

BANFF – The number of elk in the Bow Valley of Banff National Park continues to decline.

Parks Canada wildlife experts say carnivores such as wolves and cougars continued to put a dent in the elk population over the past five years and a natural bacterial disease has killed a handful of individuals more recently.

“Over the last five years, our numbers have been slowly dropping off. We’re watching it, but it’s still not a concern,” said Blair Fyten, a human-wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park.

“We have to remember that wildlife populations are always fluctuating and dynamic due to several different reasons.”

The 2021 fall classification undertaken by staff between the east park gate and Castle Mountain counted 171 elk, which is down from  212 in 2020, 249 in 2019, 267 in 2018 and 229 in 2017. The numbers are still within the 150-300 elk population target established by the former elk advisory committee.

Last year’s numbers were the second lowest since the count began in 1985. The lowest was 128 elk in 2002, not long after Parks Canada had trapped and shipped elk out of town as part of a comprehensive management strategy to reduce the number of elk attacks and aggressive encounters, as well as restore natural ecosystems that had been disrupted by an overabundance of elk in one area.

“We had seen our numbers drop off quite a bit at that point in time,” said Fyten, adding the Fairholme wolf pack was also on the scene back then hunting elk around town. “It was also around the time when the Fairholme pack, I believe, was at 13 individuals.”

While there has been no sign of the Fairholme pack for many years, the Bow Valley wolf pack continues to take down elk around town, where most of the elk hang out seeking refuge from carnivores. Wolves accounted for 31 per cent of known elk mortalities in 2021.

Although the pack has long hunted here, Fyten said the travel habits of these wolves appear to have shifted over the last five years to include areas closer to town, which could be contributing to the lower elk numbers.

“Five years ago they weren’t coming that close to town. They would come out to Six Mile Bridge west of town and maybe to the end of the golf course,” he said.

“If our prey species are in close to town, well, that’s where the wolves are going to come. Likewise, we had a lot of cougar activity in close to town so we have noticed an increase in mortalities due to predation.”

In addition, a bacterial disease has been discovered to have killed a handful of elk in the last couple of years. These are the first documented cases of a clostridial disease in elk in Canada, although that doesn’t mean the disease is only found here.

Fyten said a necropsy, which is a surgical examination of dead animals, and Parks Canada’s wildlife veterinarian working with a pathologist were able to determine the cause of death.

While these are the first known recorded cases, Fyten said it is likely a disease that has gone undetected elsewhere if proper samples were not submitted.

“We’ve always had liver fluke here for quite some time, and they seem to be able to tolerate that,” he said.

“But we’ve had a couple of suspicious deaths where elk have just been found dead for no reason, not killed by carnivores.”

Clostridial diseases are caused by anaerobic bacteria that are widespread in the environment, particularly in soil.

“It’s basically a bacterial infection. The elk ingest a spore and that spore basically needs to find an injury within the animal,” said Fyten.

“What it does is it finds where the liver fluke maybe sits within the liver and from there the bacteria grows and the animal gets like a septic shock.”

The latest elk to succumb to the disease was found earlier this month near the Banff recreation grounds.

“We collected that animal and did a necropsy on it and we’re sure that’s what happened,” said Fyten, adding there have been a total of three or four elk now to die of this bacterial infection.

“There could be more that we just don’t find. Literally, these animals, when this happens, it affects them pretty quick and they just drop over dead, and if it’s in the bush, we might not necessarily find it.”

Parks Canada documented a total of 36 known elk mortalities in 2021, but these are only the carcasses found or reported to them. There are likely more.

Of the 36, 20 elk were killed by predators.

“For 2021, the two biggest factors were wolves and cougars at 31 per cent each,” said Fyten. “Other carnivores would have been grizzly bears and coyotes.”

Elk were also killed by vehicles and trains, but none were destroyed for management reasons last year.

“We haven’t had any real big issues to deal with there,” said Fyten.

As part of the classified count, Parks Canada also looks at the cow-calf ratio. For 2021, the ratio was 29 per cent, slightly higher than the cow-calf ratio of 27 per cent the year before.

“What that indicates is we do have carnivores predating on newborn calves and young-of-years calves. It also indicates with that percentage that there’s going to be some recruitment,” said Fyten.

During the first year of the count in 1985, the cow-calf ratio was 57 per cent.

“That was high and our average is probably 30 per cent, somewhere in there,” said Fyten.

The Banff townsite has been essentially declared an elk-free zone since 1999 as part of a comprehensive elk management strategy to reduce elk attacks and restore natural processes, with ongoing regular patrols to haze them out.

The 1990s saw unnaturally high elk numbers as they sought a haven in the townsite from predators. It was not uncommon to see elk walking down Banff’s main streets looking for food in the urban-style gardens and lawns.

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

Back then, there were 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.

Parks Canada wants to remind visitors and residents to give elk the space they need, asking people to stay at least 30 metres away at all times of the year. That distance should increase during the spring calving season and the fall rut.

“That varies a little bit with elk being a little bit more aggressive at those times of year,” said Fyten.

While Parks Canada does regular patrols to keep elk out of the townsite, residents and visitors are asked to report any elk sightings in the townsite or any incidents in the park to Banff dispatch at 403-762-1470.

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