British Columbia·Video

Herd of elk spotted in Pitt River region, raising hope for species' survival on South Coast

A herd of elk was spotted in the upper Pitt River area just north of Metro Vancouver, raising hopes for the species that was once nearly extinct on the South Coast.

Roosevelt elk were nearly extinct in the region due to extensive hunting in the early 1900s

An elk lies between the trees. An aerial video showing a herd of elk just north of Metro Vancouver is raising hopes for the species' survival. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)

A herd of elk was spotted last week in the upper Pitt River area just north of Metro Vancouver, raising hopes for the species that was once nearly extinct on the South Coast.

Aerial video taken by helicopter pilot Ralph van Woerden shows a small herd of elk crossing the river.

Van Woerden told CBC News he sees a lot of wildlife in B.C.'s backcountry, but seeing elk was rare. It was only the second time he and his son, also a pilot, had seen the animals.

"It was quite beautiful to see. It's not a common sight, obviously," he said.

"We love nature, so we [are] always looking for exciting things to see. And this was definitely one of those moments that you both say, 'Oh, look at this.'"

WATCH | Helicopter footage shows a herd of elk

Small herd of elk spotted crossing B.C. river

9 months ago
Duration 0:19
Aerial video shows a herd of elk, including a male buck, crossing the upper Pitt River north of Metro Vancouver.

Van Woerden's video shows a male elk, also called a bull or buck, along with several female elk.

The elk that live in the Pitt River region are part of the Roosevelt elk subspecies, which hadn't been seen in the area for about a century before 2005, when some of them were brought up as part of a "translocation" from other areas where they were still present in significant numbers..

"This is one of the few situations where a translocation can be quite effective for conservation," said Adam T. Ford, the Canada research chair in wildlife restoration ecology at the University of British Columbia.

"In this case, the elk seemed to take well to their new environment. They're being reintroduced into their native species range, so the habitat conditions are generally suitable for them."

Roosevelt elk, which are part of the deer family and native to North America, were nearly eradicated on the South Coast due to extensive hunting in the early 1900s, according to a 2015 B.C. government report.

"Roosevelt elk serve an important ecological role in coastal ecosystems of British Columbia," the report states.

The paper says they serve as prey for top predators in the area and contribute in other ways to the ecosystem. 

A herd of elk has made its home in the Lower Mainland. A video of the animals crossing Upper Pitt River north of Maple Ridge has caught the attention of local wildlife enthusiasts. We discuss this rare sighting with Ralph Van Woerden who shared his video of the elk on social media.

Due to their importance for ecosystems, some elk were gradually re-introduced to the Sunshine Coast, in the Sechelt Peninsula and Powell River regions, in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2005, 23 elk were relocated to the upper Pitt River region from the Sechelt Peninsula. Subsequently, their population has grown to more than 350 according to the province, and van Woerden says he hopes it continues to do so.

"I heard that they're being hunted by people or poached," he said. "Hopefully they'll be left alone and can grow more and more."

A 2017 B.C. government report notes that unregulated hunting, commercial forestry, and resource extraction activities can strongly affect elk populations in the region.

There were an estimated 1,600 elk in the South Coast region as of 2017, with a further 5,500 on the West Coast including Vancouver Island.

A spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Forests and Lands said that approximately 2,500 elk now live in the South Coast region after translocations over the past few decades.

"The Roosevelt elk story is a conservation success," Ford said. "I think we're going to see more situations like this — of elk being maybe seen in places where they haven't been seen for a long time."

Roosevelt elk are on the provincial "blue list," which means their conservation is of special concern. They cannot be hunted freely, despite their traditional importance to First Nations in the area.

The 2015 report noted that of more than 15,000 applications to hunt elk in B.C., approximately 300 were granted.

With files from Jessica Cheung