Officials at Elk Island National Park are racing to save the fenced-in park from itself.

A lack of natural predators has led to ballooning numbers of bison, elk and moose. Without space to roam and few predators, the herds are overgrazing and destroying the forest.

"If we don't act now and reduce some of these ungulate numbers, the ecosystem won't be sustainable for occurring or future generations," said Dale Kirkland, the park's superintendent.

Park officials hosted an open house on Thursday to answer questions about overpopulation and possible solutions.

Based on the most recent aerial census, Elk Island has 140 surplus bison, 250 surplus elk and, within the southern ranges of the park, about 120 surplus moose.  

Bison Graphic
 Five methods have been proposed to reduce the overpopulation in the park about 50 kilometres east of Edmonton. Two do not involve death for the animals.

Fences around the park could be shortened to allow elk, deer and moose to jump over them.

Parks Canada is treating the idea cautiously. Migrating animals can spread disease, become a traffic hazard and destroy local crops.

Plains and wood bison can contribute to conservation projects worldwide. To date, the park has transferred more than 2,500 bison.

Elk and moose are not eligible for translocation because they could be carrying diseases. They also can't be sold to auction. Unlike bison, neither animal is considered livestock.

All animals can be sold to federally certified slaughterhouses. Earlier this year, about 30 elk from the park were sold.

Elk Island Park may also be opened to hunters, who would shoot moose and elk. Park staff, indigenous and non-Indigenous hunters could participate in that cull.

'We are the wolves'

Marcel Desjarlais attended Thursday's open house on behalf of Frog Lake First Nation, with questions about the proposed hunt.

"It's part of our history and our heritage," said Desjarlais, who started hunting and trapping as a child 40 years ago.

Without natural predators in the park, Desjarlais said trained hunters need to step in.

"We are the wolves, in this issue, and we have to take care of the animals so that the land can continue to sustain the herd."

Marcel Desjarlais

Marcel Desjarlais, a member of the Frog Lake First Nation, says hunting and trapping are integral parts of his treaty rights. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Desjarlais has participated in elk culls before. During one of them, he said indigenous hunters shot 42 animals in one afternoon. 

"We butchered them and took them all home and we distributed meat to 120 homes," Desjarlais said. 

"If managed properly and safely, it's very successful."

'We, of course, raise eyebrows'

Jordan Reichert, an animal rights activist from B.C., called the cull short-sighted and inhumane.

"We, of course, raise eyebrows," Reichert said. "What is the motive behind this? What is the consequence of such a cull?"

Reichert suggested contraception and the re-introduction of natural predators as two alternative solutions for the park's burgeoning wildlife. The animals could also be herded between grazing sites, he added.

Jordan Reichert

Jordan Reichert, an animal rights activist from B.C., says wildlife overpopulation should be addressed without killing the animals. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

"We need to make sure that we address the underlying issues by actually doing something to change the behaviour that is causing the overpopulation in the first place," he said.

Elk Island Park has tried hormonal contraception but the method was ineffective, said Colleen Arnison, a park resource management officer. 

The fenced-in area is too small to control where the animals graze or browse, she added.

Park staff will use feedback from the open house to finish drafting a 10-year plan for managing wildlife in the park. The final proposal may combine a number of methods.

 Parks Canada will continue consultations until the end of June.

Bison

Officials with Elk Island National Park are struggling with ballooning herds of bison, moose and elk. (CBC)