The province is investigating the killing of 12 elk about a week ago near Swan River — the dead animals were lined up and photographed for posts on Facebook and YouTube — to see if the hunters shot the animals on private land without permission.
Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship officials are also concerned if the elk were baited — shared feed put out to lure them to the kill — which raises the risk of diseases like chronic wasting disease or bovine tuberculosis being passed to healthy animals.
Baiting elk is prohibited for all hunters in Manitoba’s chronic wasting disease and tuberculosis protection zones.
The shooting of the dozen elk in one day also touched off a debate with racial overtones on social media about First Nation and Métis subsistence hunting rights and the need for the Manitoba government to bring in tougher hunting restrictions for elk, which are under pressure from harvesters with the continuing closure on moose hunting in some parts of the province.
"Since old Bullwinkle walked across the Bering land bridge thousands of years ago, he hasn’t changed at all," said Vince Crichton, Manitoba Conservation’s now-retired manager of game, fur and problem wildlife. Crichton is now a private consultant.
"But look at what we have today in terms of cars, trucks and snow machines. We all have better access. They are now more vulnerable than they’ve ever been in the past. We can’t continue to harvest the way we have and expect the resource to be their for future generations."
Crichton and others said the province, with the help of First Nations and Métis, has to set new rules on when and where male and female elk and moose can be hunted, and then limit how many can be harvested each year. The Selinger government extended hunting rights to Manitoba’s Métis last fall.
"We have to get on the same page," Crichton said. "Elk are going to be in the same position of moose in the not-too-distant future."
A provincial spokesman said Wednesday that licensed elk hunting is only permitted in Manitoba through a draw, which provides 1,700 tags each year. First Nation hunters are not generally subject to seasons or bag limits, but are subject to special restrictions such as moose-hunting bans in the Duck and Porcupine Mountain areas imposed in July 2011.
Officials are also trying to determine how many hunters were involved in the elk-kill and how many families were to get meat.
If elk are harvested in violation of provincial regulations, penalties could include a fine of as much as $10,000 or imprisonment for a term of as long as six months, or both, for each person found guilty.
The Facebook page showing the dead animals has been deleted, but the cellphone video is still posted.
Riley Flett, who took the videos and photos, said he took down his Facebook page when the comments became too inflammatory. His video was recorded by someone else, posted and circulated on YouTube and is out of his control.
Les Nelson, a former Duck Mountain outfitter and elk rancher, said the furor over the recent elk hunt has been blown out of proportion.
"If that was 12 licensed white men and they showed it on TV, all the animals laying there, everybody would have been saying that they’re good hunters," Nelson said. "Because they natives went out and did it for themselves, they’re wrong. The thing is what they did is just as legal as the white guy with the licence."