Just like Riding Mountain National Park itself, the elk that call this place home have had a eventful history.
A century ago, the landscape that would become one of two national parks in Manitoba (the other is Wapusk, near Churchill) looked different than it does today. Open swaths of prairie grass flowed where thick bush now stands. Elk, moose, whitetail, mule deer, wolves and bears prowled the area, which was attracting traffic as logging operations ramped up. With increased human presence and no hunting laws in place, the elk population dropped to an estimated 500 animals in 1915, signaling a need for management.
Ken Kingdon, co-ordinator of the Wildlife Health Program in the park, said measures were quickly put in place to save the herd. The area around Clear Lake became a no hunting zone.
"By the time the area was declared a national park in 1930, the herd had recovered quite a bit," Kingdon said. "It also helped that at this time, wolves and bears were extirpated so there were virtually no natural predators for the elk."
Hunting for elk takes place through a draw system on the lands that border Riding Mountain National Park. Only residents are allowed to hunt elk in Manitoba.
The elk population got a huge boost during the Second World War, when young men -- those who would typically hunt -- were fighting overseas. In fact, an estimated 12,000 elk in the park were causing huge problems for farmers with land on the boundaries. But Mother Nature soon took care of things, delivering three hard winters in a row that reduced the population to around 3,000 animals.
Over the next three decades, the elk population would have its ups and downs, affected by weather, human pressure and a host of unknown factors. But by the 1970s, the population seemed to stabilize, Kingdon said. About 15 packs of wolves (80 to 100 animals) were reestablished in the park. Elk populations hovered between 3,500 and 5,500 animals.
"The magic number seemed to be around 4,000. Anything above that and we would see an increase in the number of complaints from farmers dealing with elk problems on their land," Kingdon said.
The game changed in 1992 when the first report of bovine tuberculosis in a cattle herd in the area surfaced. One elk also tested positive for the disease. When bovine tuberculosis is discovered, the entire cattle herd must be destroyed. There are numerous cattle operations surrounding the park. In 1996, the disease was found in a second cattle herd. A second elk tested positive in 1998.
"Park elk aren't really park elk; they're ecosystem elk," explained Kingdon, adding that about 10 per cent of the population moves in and out of the park within about a three-kilometre zone. "We needed to be good neighbours and address this."
The first order of business was to reduce the size of the herd. By 2003 -- when 11 elk tested positive -- the herd was cut to about 2,500. A comprehensive surveying and testing program was put into place. Each year, all the elk in the park are counted. There have been as few as 1,500 and as many as 2,100 in an given year. Right now, the number is around 1,700. About 100 elk each year are captured and tested for bovine tuberculosis. The nature of the test is tricky at best. A positive test is without question, positive. But about 20 per cent of tests have something called a "reactor rate."
"It means that the animal has been exposed. It may develop the disease tomorrow, 10 years from now or never," Kingdon explained. Basically, the test -- and the program in the park -- errs on the side of caution to remove any animals that could pose a threat.
Each year, between 20 and 30 animals are killed (those that display a reactor rate). A full necropsy is performed and samples send to Ottawa's Canadian Food Inspection Agency for testing. The last positive test for bovine tuberculosis in the park's elk population showed up in 2010. Kingdon, and everyone concerned about the health of the herd, is hopeful things have turned a corner.
Shel Zolkewich writes about the outdoors, travel and food when she's not playing outside, traveling or eating. You can reach her with your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org