Thinning the herd: Elk Island Park considers elk cull

Officials at Elk Island National Park are considering an elk hunt to cull a herd that threatens to grow beyond sustainable levels.

'Numbers of elk could get to levels that would have serious consequences'

Elk populations in Elk Island National Park have grown beyond sustainable levels, prompting park officials to draft a new management plan. (CBC)

Officials at Elk Island National Park are considering an elk hunt to cull a herd that threatens to grow beyond sustainable levels.

The park is hosting consultations with the public and local Indigenous groups as it develops a wildlife management plan to ensure the health of the burgeoning population of elk, bison, moose and deer within park bounds.

The elk population has become so large it could put too much strain on local forest and grassland habitats, and put the health of the herd at risk, park officials say.

There are usually around 600 of the animals within the reserve. But it's not uncommon for the numbers to surge beyond recommended levels.

'Few large predators'

Southern portions of the park, about 50 kilometres east of Edmonton, are particularly overpopulated, with more than 200 animals above recommended guidelines.

One of the options under consideration is a controlled hunt. 

Factors that keep wild elk populations in check, such as wide-ranging habitat and predators, don't exist within park bounds.

"The issue is largely that the park is fenced, so animals can't disperse from the area as densities get higher, which would be the normal pattern of population regulation," said Mark Boyce, a professor of ecology at University of Alberta who studies populations of elk within the park.

"And there are few large predators inside the park, so numbers of elk could get to levels that would have serious consequences."

Over the last two decades, an average of 160 elk have been live-trapped each year and relocated across North America to help re-establish waning herds elsewhere, but that is no longer a viable option, said Boyce.

Conservation hampered by disease risk

Some of the animals near the park have become infected with chronic wasting disease, a neurological condition similar to mad cow disease.

Though the park has never had a positive case of chronic wasting disease, there have been cases of deer found within 100 kilometres of the park and officials are cautious about the risk of infection in the area.

"Animals with antlers, they're sensitive to CWN, and if they contract it they're guaranteed to die," Boyce said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "And it's been spreading into Alberta.

"It's almost halfway across the province now, and as a consequence animals from [the park] can not be relocated into other places."

'There aren't a lot of options'

Though park officials are also considering new fencing strategies and relocation plans for all of its large park animals, Boyce thinks a hunt may be the best solution to get the elk population under control quickly.

"They've been relocated to places all over North America but they can't move now because of the CWD risk," Boyce said. "Under the circumstances, given that the animals can't be relocated elsewhere, there aren't a lot of options."

Though hunting programs within national parks are rare, they have been instituted before.

For instance, Point Pelee National Park in Ontario has staged regulated deer hunts. Terra Nova and Gros Morne National Parks in Newfoundland have, for years, used hunting programs to manage moose populations.

Elk Island Park officials will host an open house Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Alfred H. Savage Centre, at 13909 Fox Drive NW, Edmonton.

Boyce expects public opinion on the proposed hunt to be divided.

"There will always be opposition to the killing of animals," Boyce said. "But at the same time, we have a lot of people who enjoy hunting and would love to have some elk meat in their freezer. So we would have no problem finding hunters."