Military's elk population boom a bust for Alberta ranchers

Elk are reproducing like rabbits in southern Alberta, and ranchers say it's causing major problems. In the late 1990s, the Canadian military brought in 220 elk, promising ranchers the herd would never grow beyond 800.

CFB Suffield introduced herd of 220 after they got rid of wild horses — now there are more than 5,000

When 220 elk were introduced in the 1990s, the military said the herd wouldn't grow past 800. (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/Associated Press)

Elk are reproducing like rabbits in southern Alberta, and ranchers say it's causing major problems. 

In the late 1990s, the Canadian military brought in 220 elk, promising ranchers the herd would top off at 800. Today, the herd has grown to between 5,000 and 6,000 elk. 

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The move came after the Candian Forces Base Suffield removed wild horses from the area, concerned about the damage they were causing. The military assumed elk would be a better fit for the ecosystem. 

I would rather have 7,000 gophers than 7,000 elk, because those elk do a lot more damage.- Southern Alberta rancher Jeff Lewandoski

But the animals aren't staying on the base. 

"They tear the fence down as they come in," says Jeff Lewandoski.

The third-generation rancher, who lives near Jenner, Alta., says he typically sees 45 elk on his property each day. The hamlet is about a 40-minute drive north of the base. 

Third-generation rancher Jeff Lewandoski says he spends up to a quarter of his time dealing with the ungulates. (Karen Moxley/CBC)

"I spend 20 to 25 per cent of my time dealing with the elk problem. Dealing with hunters, dealing with fences, dealing with crop damage and it's definitely consuming." 

Lewandoski says the elk have developed a liking for his crops, especially his oats.

"That's just like candy to them," he says. 

"I would rather have 7,000 gophers than 7,000 elk, because those elk do a lot more damage."

Military admits elk are a problem

Other local ranchers have similar concerns to Lewandoski, and almost everyone feels the military has not done its job in controlling the elk population. Even the military admits the growth of the herd caught everyone by surprise. 

Base biologist Delaney Boyd says the military doesn't have the authority to deal with the animals themselves. (Karen Moxley/CBC)

"At the time there was an underestimation of how much these herds can grow," says Delaney Boyd, the base biologist at CFB Suffield. 

"They didn't put a plan in place to manage the herd. And because we don't have the full compliment of predators and prey, we end up with an imbalance." 

Boyd says there's confusion over who is responsible for the animals.

"We have to work with Alberta because we do not have the purview to go in and solve the problem ourselves." 

Early warnings

Dale Eslinger, a retired senior wildlife biologist with the Alberta Government, was heavily involved with the elk introduction at CFB Suffiled since releases in 1997 and 1998. 

Elk herds of more than 1,500 have been spotted around the area. (Karen Moxley/CBC)

Eslinger says the current overpopulation problem could have been predicted and he encouraged the base to control the herd from the start. 

"I knew this situation would escalate into the kind of situation we have now, unless steps were taken very early on to develop a comprehensive management plan." 

Eslinger says now the base faces a tough choice. It needs to decide on an acceptable size for the herd, and let hunters take care of the rest. 

The hunt is on

For the second year in a row, CFB Suffield is allowing hunters onto the base to shoot elk.

The province has issued 300 tags this year for the hunt, which will last a total of three weeks.

But even the base biologist admits that's not enough.

"Say we're dealing with a herd of 5,000 animals. And if [that herd] is increasing at 20 to 25 per cent a year, we're going up by 1,000 animals every year," she says.

"We're only at the tip of the iceberg." 

Now in the second week of a three week hunting season, 52 elk have been shot on the base.

A herd of elk on the Canadian Forces Base Suffield earlier this month, during hunting season. The military has allowed hunters onto the base for the second time this year in an effort to curb the population. (Courtesy of Candian Forces Base Suffield)


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