Elk Sterilization Plan Now Unlikely
[Rachel's Introduction: "I'm really pleased with the consensus that sterilization is not consistent with the goal of maintaining ecological integrity and the precautionary principle," said Gaby Zezulka-Maillou.]
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By Cathy Ellis
A controversial experiment to sterilize 10 female elk in Banff [Alberta, Canada] to test the effectiveness of birth control as a way of reducing the burgeoning elk population around the townsite is likely off the table for this year.

An advisory group to Parks Canada on Tuesday (March 11) recommended against the fertility control experiment at this time, although the superintendent of Banff National Park does have the final say.

The group also ruled out establishing off-leash dog areas outside town boundaries aimed at keeping elk at bay, or erecting permanent fences designed to keep elk out of certain areas, such as the recreation grounds and Banff Springs golf course.

They indicated they would prefer to continue with an experiment next winter of using semi-permeable wooden fences at five wildlife underpasses to trap elk on the north side of the highway, where they are more likely to be hunted by wolves and cougars.

Banff-based UTSB Research, which holds a seat on the committee and has loudly voiced its opposition to using the birth control drug Gonacon, was happy with the recommendations to come out of Tuesday's meeting.

"I'm really pleased with the consensus that sterilization is not consistent with the goal of maintaining ecological integrity and the precautionary principle," said Gaby Zezulka-Maillou, of UTSB Research after the meeting.

"We felt introducing sterilization in a wild population, particularly using a relatively untested product was not prudent and was costly. The substance Gonacon has not been rigorously tested."

The birth control plan was part of the bigger picture to reduce the growing number of elk around the Banff townsite to avoid a public safety threat and widespread environmental damage.

Elk numbers have more than doubled in the last three years, with a count last year estimating there to be at least 204 individuals in areas around the Banff townsite. The animals are likely seeking a safe haven from cougars and wolves.

Parks wants to avoid the situation of the 1980s and 1990s when hundreds of urban elk moved into town, often seen strolling downtown, holding people hostage in their homes as they feasted on lawns and charging and attacking residents and tourists.

On an environmental level, the unusually high density of elk led to severe ecological problems for other species such as birds and beavers, as the ungulates overgrazed shrubs and aspen and made it difficult for rejuvenation.

In reaching its recommendation to cancel the sterilization project of 10 elk cows, the montane advisory group considered the advantages and disadvantages of fertility treatment.

It was told the advantages of sterilization would help prevent the population from increasing, would allow animals to live without contributing to a population increase and may only partially reduce elk-human conflicts, as there would be no calves to defend.

On the downside, however, was the concern that fertility control does not affect elk behaviour or distribution, nor does it address ecological effects of high elk densities, such as elk grazing, and it does not fully address concerns about elk-human conflicts.

As well, the drug Gonacon is relatively new and would prove costly. From handling the elk, to injecting them with the drug by hand and fitting them with a collar for monitoring purposes was estimated to cost about $500.

Parks Canada officials say there is a chance the elk population could be slightly down, especially considering wardens destroyed 20 high habituated elk this winter, 13 more were killed on the train tracks and the cow-calf ratio was unusually low at 16 per cent.

But they say they will continue monitoring the elk population around town and try to get a better handle on the numbers during the spring survey, scheduled for sometime in May.

They plan to bring the dog handler back this spring to chase elk out of town during the calving season and do ongoing hazing of elk on the Banff Springs golf course in the summer.

As well, they will also put up more signs to try and keep people, including those walking their dogs off-leash in the area of the airstrip, out of the Cascade corridor to encourage wary carnivores to use the area.

They also plan to put the semi-permeable fences back up next winter.

The experiment to put the six-foot high wooden fences at five underpasses was not deemed overly successful this year, as the elk stampeded through one of the fences back to the south side of the highway, where they spent much of the winter.

In addition, the area's two main wolf packs did not travel through the Cascade wildlife corridor. There was, however, a known cougar kill in the wildlife corridor and another in the Minnewanka Loop region.

Jesse Whittington, a wildlife specialist with Banff National Park, said this winter's results did not quite prove themselves, but the experiment can't be judged on one year alone and needs to be given more time.

"There was lots of cougar activity this year, but the elk were relatively safe from wolves. If the Cascade pack was travelling through there, it might have been more effective," he said.

"Wolf use in there changes over time. In previous winters there have been wolves, but not the last two winters."

Mike McIvor, president of the Bow Valley Naturalists and a member of the advisory group, said it is important to give the

experiment of using the semi-permeable fences to keep elk on the north side a chance to work.

"One of the things we all have to come to terms with is that the natural world functions on a completely different timetable than the frenzied immediate one that we're part of," he said.

"When we're trying to change things and trying to learn from what we're doing, I think we have to demonstrate some patience and I think it's completely wrong to expect instant results."

Susan Webb, a representative for the Town of Banff on the committee, concurred, saying she agrees more time must be given to see if the experiment of using the semi-permeable fences needs more time to get results.

She also said she was glad Parks was not moving ahead with sterilization.

"I think of Banff National Park as a leader in the national parks in Canada. It's a flagship park, and it's always wise to act on more information than less information," said Webb.

"If some other national park in the United States is doing the research with birth control, let's benefit from that. We should go with proven science. It feels right not to experiment when we're not sure what the results would be."