A local conservation group has called for a radical shift in wildlife management to save dwindling elk populations across the East Kootenay.
The East Kootenay Wildlife Association (EKWA) has 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, which show numbers are rapidly declining.
A spokesman from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development said the latest elk inventory report was not expected to be completed until later this month.
However, according to the EKWA, elk numbers have dropped from 14,115 in 2008 to 6700-6900 this year in what it is describing as a “population crash”.
The aerial stratified random block survey was conducted by the Ministry and the results presented to the Kootenay Wildlife Hunting Advisory Committee, which the EKWA is a member of.
The group is the regional arm of the BC Wildlife Federation and represents affiliated Region 4E wildlife clubs.
EKWA spokesman Mark Hall sits on the committee and said the results were alarming.
“A 50 per cent decline in a 10-year period is a massive decline and that’s extremely concerning to everybody, and to our organization and the members we represent,” he said.
“This trend of 50 per cent population crashes is kind of what we’re seeing with big horned sheep, with elk, with moose populations over a 10-year period.
“It’s not little cycles up and down, it’s major population crashes and that’s concerning to a tremendous amount of people.”
Hall said it was unclear what was causing the elk population decline.
“Things that are talked about around the table have everything to do with impacts to their habitat – road building on the landscape, predation, highway mortality, rail mortality, poor nutrition… it’s all small things that add up to these major influences on wildlife,” he said.
“Invasive weeds are another major one that’s influencing the amount of food that’s available for wildlife.”
In a statement to The Free Press, a spokesman for the Ministry said the population decline could be partly attributed to increased antlerless elk harvest from 2010-12 when elk populations were above management targets and overgrazing winter ranges.
“Antlerless elk harvest was reduced substantially after 2012 but populations did not rebound,” he said.
“There has been poor calf recruitment documented in elk populations recently which could be attributed to high predation pressure and severe winter conditions in 2016-17.”
There were some positive results from the survey, according to the EKWA, with 38 calves per 100 cows counted.
Hall said this number was acceptable “as long as the majority of those calves are surviving past their first year of life”.
However, only 14 bulls per 100 cows were reported.
The Ministry has proposed cancelling the spike bull elk season to reduce harvest rates and reach its management target of at least 20 bulls per 100 cows, with a decision expected later this month.
It will use the survey results to support other initiatives affecting the population.
“Once 2018 inventory results are fully known, they will be incorporated into the elk management plan, which will identify management tools that can be implemented for populations below management objectives,” said the spokesman.
The EKWA is waiting to receive the results of surveys conducted in the Elk Valley by mining company Teck, but has been told anecdotally that numbers there are also down.
It believes a new approach to wildlife management is needed and has called on the B.C. Government to increase investment and go beyond adjusting hunting regulations.
“What the government has been doing is just ratcheting hunting seasons down, shortening hunting seasons,” said Hall. “That’s the only approach we’ve been doing in B.C. for many decades and it’s not turning populations around, so that’s a very strong indicator to us in the hunting community that… hunting is not the cause.
“They’re continually clawing hunting back from us but we’re still seeing populations go down, we’re not seeing them rebound in correlation to reducing hunting pressures.
“There’s something bigger and more significant going on… that is affecting wildlife populations over the other 9-10 months of the year that there is no hunting season and those are the things that we’re asking the government to start investing into, to research, to understand what those are.”
According to the BC Wildlife Federation, B.C. has 18 big game animals – the most in western North America – but the government invests the least in wildlife management: $37 million per year, which equates to $36 per square kilometre or $7 per person.
The Ministry spokesman said there were multiple initiatives underway to address elk declines and threats to other species of concern.
These include habitat restoration projects in places such as the Bull River and Elk Valley, treating invasive plants on winter ranges, and research projects to understand habitat use and causes of mortality.
As part of the 2018 Budget, the Government has committed an additional $14 million over three years to improve wildlife and habitat management throughout the province.
“However, broad fluctuations in ungulate abundance are common across North America and not easily ‘reversed’ with increased funding,” said the Ministry spokesman.
The EKWA is urging concerned residents to contact Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Minister, Doug Donaldson, via doug.donaldson.MLA@leg.bc.ca, and their local MLAs, Tom Shypitka (tom.shypitka.MLA@leg.bc.ca) and Doug Clovechok (doug.clovechok.MLA@leg.bc.ca).