By Dona Naylor
Our horses' manes blew softly in the warm Vancouver Island breeze. My daughter Megs and I rode the mountain path to her favourite trail, where the ferns grew higher than her pony.
We crossed the creek, and my mare spooked at something up ahead. She's removed me several times from dangerous situations, so I trusted her instincts. Something must be wrong. I grabbed Megs' pony to keep them both close. He was also frightened.
Inching forward, we rode slowly past two massive Roosevelt Elk Bulls. They stood side by side, off the trail, under a leafy canopy of maple shoots. I learned later this is something they love to do: stay hidden where they feel safe, and watch.
Named for Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States and an avid hunter and conservationist who was instrumental in preserving these magnificent animals, Roosevelt Elk are one of the more impressive sights in the Pacific Northwest. They are larger at maturity than their relatives, the Rocky Mountain Elk – females range in weight from 575-625 pounds while males weigh 700-1100 pounds. The males also sport a lordly set of antlers. Brown with ivory tips, with five or more points on each side, they are a much-desired prize for trophy hunters.
Westward expansion and over-hunting once brought the elk to the verge of extinction. Even on Vancouver Island, where they have always enjoyed relative protection, at least in its sparsely settled central and northern regions, a harsh winter in 1968-69 reduced their population to approximately 2500.
In recent decades, however, improved hunting regulations, breeding programs, and forestry practices have caused their numbers to rebound. Biologists now estimate the population of Roosevelt Elk on Vancouver Island at 4200, the largest concentration in BC.
They are found mostly in the Cowichan, Nanaimo, Campbell River, and Gold River basins. Highly sociable animals, they tend to band together. Adult females and yearling calves gather in small herds of up to 100, while bulls prefer to remain separate in small bachelor herds. During the rut in September, however, mature bulls can defend a harem of up to 30 cows. According to Kim Brunt, a Nanaimo-based Senior Biologist for Environment Canada, and author of Ecology of Roosevelt Elk, "Bulls bugle, to challenge rivals during rut, and emit a series of grunts and high-pitched squeals. When bulls are equally matched, they use their antlers, in a pushing match, to establish who is the strongest." The winner may then go on to breed his cows, after which exhausting exercise he returns to his group.
The herds don't need to migrate widely, though they must move down from their mountainside habitats if snow packs restrict their food supply. Bull elk lose considerable weight during the rut, putting them at risk if the winter forage is not plentiful. Females also require a good food source, as they are now with calf. If they lose their fat ratio balance, they are at risk of not surviving. One favoured winter home is the flats near Gold River, where they like to feed on sedge, grasses, and ferns, and browse the elderberry and hemlock.
Their growth in numbers has made encounters with humans increasingly likely. Becky Martens, an equestrian coach in Coombs, 153 km. northwest of Victoria, often rides in the area. "A couple of friends and I rode out of the bush into the opening of a field, where we saw a massive black bear galloping towards us. I wondered what he was running from, or to, when my horse spooked. To my immediate right, hidden by the border of trees on the perimeter of the field, a huge bull elk screamed the strangest sound I have ever heard.
"I thought the elk was going to charge my horse, so I jumped off. My two friends took off across the field, and my horse followed. So there I was, a huge black bear galloping toward me, and a screaming bull elk to my right. I ran. My friends were having a great laugh. Luckily the bear kept running, and the elk watched from his vantage point. I am sure he had a chuckle."
According to Brunt, animal predators are the greatest threat to the elk on Vancouver Island. "Wolves currently account for most of the predation, with calves being the most taken, as they are more easily captured than adults." Winter also remains a potential enemy; severe cold in combination with heavy snow can reduce the elks' numbers, as they require increased nutrients to survive the extreme temperatures. Vancouver Island has a strong population of cougar that hunts elk successfully when their prey is in a weakened state.
Hunting by humans is heavily regulated. From 1970 to 1976, no permits were issued for Roosevelt Elk. Since then, a regulated LEH, or "limited entry hunt" has been in effect. The number of applications to hunt for these majestic animals increases every year. "In 1988 there were 7,560 applications for only 239 permits," Brunt notes. Even so, the quota is rarely met, as only around 65% of hunters take home a prize.
That's not to say humans are no longer a threat to the species. In March, 2010, two pregnant elk cows were shot by poachers in the Cowichan Valley, and left to die. The killings outraged the community. As local Wilderness Watch co-ordinator Denis Martel told the Cowichan Valley Citizen, "Cow elk can usually give birth to a calf each year of her life. Elk cows can live up to 20 years old. So then, if you shoot five cows from the same herd, you have just decimated 100 elk." Brunt adds that eight cows were found illegally shot in 2009. The state of the butchered carcasses suggested it was for the meat.
On northern Vancouver Island, several professional guides can make the necessary arrangements to take hunters out for a Roosevelt Elk. I, however, will shoot with my camera. Elk fascinate me, and I feel honoured and privileged to share this remarkable island with them. Unfortunately, the only one I've seen recently was made of wood and held a large sign that said, "Welcome to Strathcona Park."
I suspect a lot of people have shot that one.