Elk (Cervus canadensis) – Historical Profile

Written by: Ashley McNeill, Chris Reinhart, Cassie Luff, Danielle Young

Historical Profile

The Elk’s history in North America matches numerous other species. After the Europeans settled in North America, the increasing population had a higher demand for food, this caused over hunting and destruction of habitat for agricultural purposes, which ultimately lead to the species being extirpated from Ontario in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s (Witmer, 1990). Elk remained absent from all of Ontario until the late 1990’s when the province, along with other partnering organizations, took on the task of introducing a herd they acquired from Elk Island National Park in Alberta. Four sites were chosen based on the potential to support these herds. While the Elk have survived, they are slowly increasing their populations. The most viable herd resides in the Bancroft-Haliburton area. This herd has a ratio of 8 mature bull Elk to 100 Mature cow Elk. In order to achieve maximum productivity, the ratio should be 20:100 mature bulls to cows (McCorquodale et. al., 2011). The low numbers of bull Elk in  Bancroft is alarming as this area receives the highest hunting pressure . This leads to the over harvesting of mature bulls and therefore not enough males to mate with the females. This trend must be addressed as well as continually monitored to make any changes to avoid what happened over 100 years ago with the native Elk population. The growing population caused the establishment of large farms and ranches to be created on the historic foraging grounds of the Elk. This ultimately inhibited the species to naturally recolonize the areas. However, the Elk still tried and this created the conflict between ranchers and Elk we have today .

The problem arises between Elk and farmers or ranchers because of the environmental needs of Elk. Since they need vast areas of grasslands to forage throughout the summer, and those ecosystems are lacking all over North America and especially Ontario, the Elk turn to pasture lands and agricultural fields to meet their biological needs. This causes destruction of agricultural fields as well as the Elk grazing the pasture lands instead of the livestock, which costs the farmer money. Another major problem with Elk is that they act as vectors in spreading diseases to livestock they come in contact with. The most common and harmful being brucellosis, which causes abortions, retained placentas, male reproductive tract lesions, arthritis and bursitis (Rhyan et. al., 2013)


Ecological Connections

In the winter, elk herds return to lower valley pastures where elk spend the season pawing through snow to browse on grass or settling for shrubs that stand clear of the snow cover (Thrift, Mosley, & Mosley, 2013). The nature of elk is to locate to open grasslands. This has become an issue for farmers as the elk are attracted to their pastures due to the abundance of food available. Since Elk are closely related biologically to cattle, diseases are more transferable between the animals. Diseases such as brucellosis has been spreading to livestock. Brucellosis is associated with abortions, retains placentas, male reproductive tract lesions, arthritis, and bursitis in livestock. (Rhyan, Nol, Quance, Gertonson, Belfrage, Harris, & Robbe-Austerman, 2013). (Knight, 2014)
Although elk are attracted to grasslands, the introduction of anthropogenic factors has made the elk become more attracted to pastures, these factors include; hay and mineral salt blocks. Now not only are the elk grazing on pastures for grass but also for other essential resources. As a result, this increases pathogen transmission to livestock through indirect contact (Pruvot, Seidel, Boyce, Musiani, Massolo, Kutz, & Orsel, 2014).

Critical Assessment of Management Options

In addition to the earlier stated options to restrict the access of Elk in pasture lands, the purchase of guard dogs would be a smart investment for ranchers. The presence of guard dogs would provide an aggressive/protective force within the pasture land. Some of the top recommended dog breeds that provide this protection include; Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Maremma Sheepdog, Kangal, and the Spanish Mastiff. These species of canines have a large muscular biomass which makes them a strong competitor to predator species of the livestock they protect. The presence of the large dogs would provide a sense of danger towards the Elk, would influence them to migrate to another area away from the ranch to avoid the possible danger. The guard dogs would be beneficial in providing protection from other predators such as coyotes and wolves which tend to also cause problems for ranchers. In order to successfully use guard dogs in the ranch environment, it is beneficial to purchase the dogs as pups in order to create a bond between it and the livestock or to purchase adult dogs who are already trained for the job. The next step is to establish a set of commands for the dog(s) to follow, including “come” and “no” commands. The number of dogs needed for the ranch pasture is determined by the “size of the pasture, number of herd groups, topography, flocking instinct of livestock, fencing and guardian dog behaviour” (Redden, Tomecek, & Walker, n.d.). The investment in guard dogs for pasture protection, ranges in price considering the dog breed, the number of dogs and the cost of training. The cost for the first year is “estimated at approximately $1000, and decreases the second year to $500” (Redden, Tomecek, & Walker, n.d.) which is for proper care of the dog(s).

Another option is to actively manage the populations of Elk in high density areas. Actively managing the Elk could be done in a variety of ways with the most effective being allowing a greater number of tags to become available to hunters. As of 2011 the Ontario government allowed for the hunting of Elk. 70 tags were issued to individuals and parties. In order to allow a small herd of Elk to live in the area, the ministry could increase the number of tags given. By allowing hunters to target both bulls and cows based on the number of tags given out,  they could actively maintain the population at its carrying capacity. By increasing the limit of tags, you allow more hunters the opportunity to hunt Elk in Ontario. Since Elk are a prized big game species and normally hunters would need to go out west in either Canada or the States to hunt them, thus leaving the opportunity out of reach for the average hunter.  However, now that the species is present in Ontario again, it allows many hunters to participate in a new type of hunting, on that they have never experienced before. With the high demands of new hunters, this would increase the revenue that hunting brings into Ontario. In 2014-2015, Ontario residents spent 371 million dollars in hunting related tasks, with the Fish and Wildlife Special Purpose Account contributing 68.9 million dollars into fish and wildlife management (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, 2016). Through active managing the Elk population, it would benefit numerous groups of people including farmers and ranchers, environmentalist, government agencies such as the MNRF and OFAH, and communities where the hunting will occur around through bringing in guided hunts and therefore revenue into the towns.

Another option to dissuade and prevent Elk from leaping into pasture land would be to modify an existing wire fence by adding a mesh fence extension onto it, creating a six-foot fence. Although the Cervidea spp. is capable of jumping a six-foot fence, it is not likely that the animal will do so just for food. Provided the existing fence is in good condition, this method is very cost-effective, as an additional however-many feet is added to the fence by welding a steel rebar onto the existing rebar and attaching the mesh onto the existing fence. This method is proven to be 100% effective in keeping out elk from pasture land (Knight, 2014). Since this method is not only effective but also cost effective, this method will be the superior method for Elk management in pasture lands.

Table 2: Comparison of doing nothing, modified fencing, and using guardian dogs as a solution to resolve livestock losses from getting diseases from elk. Both modified fencing and guardian dogs reduce livestock deaths as well as save money for the farmer. Overall, both options will have valuable results.


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