Wildlife groups in the Elk Valley hope that new data from a four-year collaring study will help shed light on the solutions necessary to help elk populations bounce back, as well as benefit numerous organizations.
Almost four years after beginning their project, the Sparwood Fish and Wildlife Association, in collaboration with biologist Kim Poole, will be wrapping up their collaring study on elk.
The study, which began in 2016, involved the collaring of about 70 elk. In addition to monitoring migratory and movement patterns, the study also helped the organization gain a better understanding of how elk in the area are dying.
With all data collected by this fall, the hope is to complete a full analysis by March 2020.
Before the study was started, there was little up-to-date data available on Elk populations and migratory patterns in the Elk Valley. In addition, there was concern by residents of the area that elk populations had declined significantly.
In addition to playing a vital role in the local ecosystem and food chain, Poole explained that elk are also an iconic mountain species, of First Nations interest and cultural importance, and also important for both resident and non-resident hunting. In addition to this, he said elk can potentially have a negative affect on both agriculture, as well as motor-vehicle collisions.
Since 2016, Poole has discovered that a good portion of the elk population in the Sparwood area stay in the valley bottoms. Some stay just north of the Sparwood airport, some move onto mine properties during the summer, and some move into the backcountry and into higher elevations. However, the portion of elk moving into the backcountry is much lower, and Poole says this is becoming a common pattern seen in studies around North America; less migration.
“There are a number of factors that could be contributing; everything to do with changes in predation, plus the agriculture in the lower elevation areas,” said Poole.
“Elk are basically balancing food versus predation risk, and if they think they can get by staying down low during the summers as opposed to going up high, they sometimes do that,” he said.
“Going back to why the whole project started was that their natural migration seems to have shifted, mostly because of human development. Both mines and agriculture, etc.,” Poole added.
Asked how this affects elk numbers, Poole admitted this is a complicated question.
Although there hasn’t been a survey of elk since 2013, Poole said his indications from talking with locals is that the numbers have come down. Whether that’s directly related to changes in migration patterns, Poole said it’s hard to say. There are many factors that come into play including changes in predation, good winters, as well as bad winters.
“So numbers are down – how changes in migration directly affect numbers is a bit hard to quantify,” explained Poole.
The next step in the collaring study is the analysis process, which is set to start in the next month. This will look at migratory patterns and compare it to data from the 1980s and 90s, when a collaring study was completed east of Sparwood.
It will also compare the survival rate of elk that leave the valley bottoms as opposed to those that do not.
So far the collars have recorded data which shows that several elk have travelled extensive distances throughout the years. One elk made the journey north from Sparwood to the Kananaskis Valley, and up to Highway 1. Currently it is spending the majority of its time near the Kananaskis Golf Course.
Another elk travelled east along the drainages into Old Man Valley, Alberta, close to the Alberta 22X Highway. After spending about a year there, it returned to the Elk Valley, just southeast of Sparwood.
Since they started the project, the Sparwood groups have recorded 22 elk mortalities. When an elk fails to move for a certain amount of time, Poole will be notified, and members of the Sparwood Fish and Wildlife Association will travel out to find the animal and determine cause of death.
The study has been supported throughout the years by the Columbia Basin Trust’s Upper Kootenay Ecosystem Enhancement Plan, the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program, a collaboration between BC Hydro, the Province of B.C., Fisheries and Oceans Canada, First Nations and public stakeholders, as well as the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, and Teck Coal.
This study is the result of growing concerns that elk populations in the Elk Valley are declining.
In May of 2018, The Free Press reported that a local conservation group had called for a radical shift in wildlife management to save dwindling elk populations across the East Kootenay.
This came after the East Kootenay Wildlife Association (EKWA) released the preliminary results of an aerial survey of Rocky Mountain elk in the Southern East Kootenay Trench, from Canal Flats to the U.S. border.
According to the EKWA, elk numbers dropped from 14,115 in 2008 to 6700-6900 in 2018, and this was described as a “population crash”.
EKWA spokesman Mark Hall said at the time that the results were alarming, but it was unclear what was causing the decline. He explained it could be a multi-faceted issue; the construction of roads on the landscape, predation, highway mortality, rail mortality, poor nutrition, or even invasive weeds taking over food sources.
Years ago, before the elk collaring study was proposed in the Sparwood area, Elk Valley residents began to notice an increase in elk numbers. This started to have an effect on agriculture due to an increase in crop degradation. What followed was the erection of more exclusion fencing on land which was in part, prime elk habitat.
Sparwood Fish and Wildlife Association president Matt Huryn explained that soon after this, hunters in the Elk Valley noticed that the numbers of resident elk in the area had increased. What followed was a more liberal hunting season.
While this was acceptable at the time, Huryn said the more liberal hunting season could have targeted migratory elk and as a result, had a negative affect on the migratory and behavioural patterns of the remaining elk. This, he said, was one of the drivers behind the launch of the collaring program; to find out more information about migratory patterns and how much they had disrupted it.
The more recent concern, he explained, is the plummeting elk numbers.
“The more science we have, the more data we have, the better understanding we have of what we need to do,” said Huryn.
“And whether that’s adjust hunting seasons, what animals we’re targeting, where we’re targeting them, and also opportunities for improvement on habitat,” he added.
Huryn explained that the more liberal hunting season which followed the increase in elk populations was in direct correlation with a five year elk management plan that was launched by the Ministry of Environment.
The five year plan, launched in 2010, had the objective of reducing elk herds by 25 to 30 per cent.
At that time, Huryn said the Ministry had sound inventory data, combined with bull/cow ratios, to support this management plan.
The hunting season which followed loosened restrictions on cow elk, and introduced a rifle season on spike bull elk, to try and achieve this reduction.
“The downside of that was, over the five year elk management plan, the Ministry really dropped the ball on monitoring, and seeing where we were, year to year to year, on meeting that objective,” said Huryn.
He added that although the more liberal hunting seasons contributed to the declining population, the Elk Valley at the time also saw an increase in predation from wolves, cougars, and other predators. Another factor which could have contributed to the decline was a number of harsh winters that followed, leading to an increase in mortalities due to starvation.
“So these things kind of piled up over that five year plan, and then come the end of the plan, and it’s like – where did your science go all of a sudden?” Huryn said.
He explained that it’s the Ministry’s responsibility, rather than the club’s, to collect that information and relay it to them.
Huryn said it really hit home when, come 2016, people started to notice a large decline in elk numbers. The following year, Huryn described as ‘a joke’.
In a release on August 23, 2018, the Province explained that they were taking action to support the recovery of Rocky Mountain elk after a recent aerial study found the population has significantly declined.
“The survey revealed the current trench population has declined 32 per cent below target levels established by the objectives in the previous Regional Elk Management Plan,” read the release.
Looking to the future, Huryn said he hopes that the information collected through the elk collaring project will help them formulate solutions as to how they can help the elk population rebound. He said the data will be utilized in a variety of ways.
Already, word of the elk collaring project is spreading. Huryn was recently contacted by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure who requested the data obtained through the project. The data, they said, will be used to assist in the creation of wildlife crossings in order to reduce the number of vehicle-wildlife collisions on the highway.
“There’s a lot of different people that are finding an interest in this information,” he said. “It’s turning out to be a pretty awesome project.”
On average, the Sparwood Fish and Wildlife Association attracts 300 members annually, the majority of which are local.
The archery season opened on September 1, and Tuesday, September 10 marked the start of the rifle season, and will run until October 20.
Right now in the archery season, harvests are allowed for any bull elk. Starting Tuesday, harvests are open for six point elk, or better (mature bull elk; at least six points on one side of the antlers).
As a result of some of the feedback by hunters in the Sparwood area, restrictions have been put in place regarding number of elk harvested in the rifle season.
In response to the low elk numbers, Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) closed the spike bull elk rifle season.
According to Huryn, they have also significantly reduced the number of LEH (Limited Entry Hunting) cow elk permits that are issued. This year they also added a new addition to the regulations, saying private land cow elk hunt has ceased in several Management Units throughout the region.