Bull elk © Parks Canada
Populations of elk were abundant in areas around present day Elk Island National Park at the end of the 1700’s. The depletion of elk numbers came with European settlement and the need for subsistence and commercial meat. By 1894, elk were practically eliminated from much of the area.
Elk Island National Park was first established in 1906 as a wildlife reserve called Elk Park. The Park was set aside as a reserve when residents in the surrounding region petitioned the government to protect a small remaining herd of 75 elk in the Beaver Hills area.
Elk Island National Park is surrounded by a 2.2-metre high fence that restricts the movement of animals into and out of the Park. The Park also lacks large predators such as wolves, cougars, and bears. Apart from very rare sightings of these species, they were extirpated from the area more than 100 years ago. In addition, a rigorous fire management program and productive plant growing conditions over the last fifteen years have created a favourable range for herbivores. These conditions have resulted in a very productive elk herd that increases at an average rate of 20% annually. The present (March 2010) population is approximately 600 elk for the entire park.
Park staff separate bull elk from cow and calf elk in an elk trap © Parks Canada
Elk and bison herds must be managed in the Park to prevent over-population of these species. This intervention is necessary as continuous, annual, intensive grazing in the very long-term impacts both plant and animal diversity and predisposes large herbivores to disease and large "die-offs."
In a completely natural ecosystem, herbivore populations are usually prevented from overpopulating an area by several limiting factors or conditions—two of which are dispersal and predation. In a natural ecosystem, herbivores will expand their range (or seasonally migrate) and disperse if they are too numerous in an area and there is no longer enough feed to sustain them. Large predators also play an important role in keeping herbivore numbers in balance. Both of these limiting factors, which help keep ungulate numbers in check, are absent in Elk Island National Park because of the surrounding fence and the lack of large predators.
The fence is necessary in Elk Island because of where the Park is situated—surrounded by agricultural land, rural communities, and suburban developments. The fence keeps the elk and other large herbivores from dispersing onto outlying areas where they are not welcome. It also keeps domestic animals (i.e., cattle) from entering the Park.
Re-introducing large predators back into Elk Island may not be practical because of the Park's small area. These animals might also breach the fence by climbing over it or digging under it, and would likely not be welcomed by the outlying communities.
The elk management program in Elk Island involves intensive monitoring to determine the number of elk that are to be surplused each year. These elk are then trapped and handled during the winter months for relocation. Close co-operation between Elk Island National Park, the Wild Elk Federation (Canada), the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (USA), the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and several other agencies is necessary to relocate these animals to the wild.
Elk wait to be tagged and disease tested at the elk facility before relocation © Parks Canada
All elk are placed in a squeeze and disease tested before being relocated © Parks Canada
An ungulate aerial survey is flown every winter. Total elk, moose, deer, and bison numbers are recorded, which includes the age and sex of animals. Through this survey, the rate of increase and other related population dynamics are recorded. Habitat utilization is assessed annually by monitoring browse, grass, and sedge use on established transects. From this information, an assessment of the number of elk to be surplused from the Park each year is calculated.
Removal of Surplus Elk / Co-operative Agreements
Cow elk with their newborn calves relocated to Tennessee from Elk Island National Park © Parks Canada
All of the Park's surplus elk are released to the wild through co-operative elk transplants with federal, provincial, or state governments. Elk Island elk are used as a source herd for re-establishing elk populations in native range throughout North America. The Park has become renowned for its conservation role in repopulating areas where elk populations used to exist or in supplementing existing herds that have been drastically reduced and are too small to increase on their own.
Over the last two decades, an average of 160 elk each handling year have been live-trapped and transplanted for this purpose. Surplus elk have been allocated to the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories, and to Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina in the United States.
Post-transplant monitoring is the responsibility of the receiving agency. Elk Island encourages the receiving agency to radio collar and monitor several animals from each transplant to provide data on elk movements and the general success of the re-introduction.
The costs and logistics in managing the elk population in the Park are becoming increasingly prohibitive. Although all elk surplused from the Park are still live-captured for relocation/reintroduction purposes, other options for managing the herd are presently being considered.