A history of Kootenay elk

More than 200 years of ups and downs with a former plains animal, now a mountain ungulate.

Elk have a long history in the Kootenays.

Elk have a long history in the Kootenays.

FJ Hurtak

Originally, there were five sub-species of North American elk, but as a result of human encroachment only three remain in existence today: the Rossevelt, Tule and the Rocky Mountain Elk. The latter of the three inhabits the majority of regions in North America,  including the Kootenay regions of British Columbia.

The Rocky Mountain Elk was once a plains animal and its ability to adapt to food sources located in mountainous terrain, no doubt, saved this sub-species from extinction as well.

More than 200 years ago, the best food sources for elk resulted from periodic wildfires. As the forest took over the fire dependent grasslands elk populations declined until the area burned again. Elk were easily accessible to early settlers in those areas with a recent fire history. These areas were also the more popular areas for settlement, as they provided abundant grass for settler’s livestock. The meat provided sustenance while  the hides provided warmth in the frigid winter months.

Elk populations declined as a result of competition from forest succession, competition from domestic livestock (as well as feral domestic stock, like wild horses) and from localized over-harvests and commercial harvests for elk ivories to supply the demand from Elks Lodge members.

Elk’ Lodge members at that time achieved greater status amongst their fraternity if they were in possession of coveted elk ivories or antlers. Consequently, in those very early years, they had a negative impact on elk populations. However, once the senior executives of the Club were made aware of the fact that they were contributing to a declining elk population, the practice was discouraged.

Elk populations were dealt another blow in the latter part of the 1800s by a series of severe winters. By the early 1900s the only elk left in the Kootenay region were small herds found in isolated mountain pockets of the Upper Kootenay River, the Upper Elk Valley and the Duncan Lake areas.

The nutritious plant life in avalanche chutes provided the elk with enough feed to just barely sustain the herds. Then Mother Natures cast her hand into the fray. Wildfires scorched many western regions and after a few years the burns yielded much vegetation in the form of lush grass and bushes. Elk populations took advantage of the newly created grasslands and exploded right across the west, and for the next 50 years populations spiralled up or down depending on the overall conditions of the forests. If there were no major fires for years, elk populations declined as forested areas slowly matured, choking out plant growth. Again, when fires would ravage the forests, a few years later elk populations would surge as prolific food sources were restored for elk herds.

Elk populations expanded into the east side of the Kootenay Trench in the early 1940s and into the west side of the Kootenay Trench in the early 1950s. In the 1960s and ’70s, and particularly in the 1980s, elk hunters were enjoying the fruits of a burgeoning elk population. To control the increasing elk numbers in the 1960s, long open antler-less seasons, in conjunction with even longer bull seasons, were used. In the 1970s the antler-less seasons were closed and a three-point restriction was placed on bulls in an effort to produce more of them.

In the 1980s the Ministry of Environment started issuing thousands of LEH cow and calf tags to restore bull/cow ratios to more natural levels while controlling the total elk population (as a result of political lobbying by agricultural groups).

Success rates for hunters were extremely high, at first, but by 1990, elk numbers had been reduced significantly and so had success rates.

Also, the interest in elk hunting, particularly for trophy bulls was increasing. Better bugles, the advent of commercial cow calls, elk books and videos, and more overall knowledge of the species all contributed to the rise in interest.

To counteract the downward trend, the Ministry of Environment imposed point restrictions on bull elk for part of the season. Needless to say, the decision was controversial, and enjoyed only marginal success. Too many bulls were still being harvested and bull to cow ratios and cow to calf, were below the numbers needed to sustain healthy elk populations.

Before the fall of 1997, after a devastating winter, the branch introduced a six-point restriction all season long ( Sept. 10 to Oct. 20). Bow hunters were still allowed to harvest a three-point or better bull from Sept, 1 – 9. The six-point rule was indeed, at best, a compromise to prevent bull elk from going on the much despised limited entry system as recommended in the Redaeke Report (independent study).

Now in retrospect, here in 2015, there is little doubt that without the six-point rule in effect, bull elk would indeed be on LEH, and the vast majority of resident hunters would not be out elk hunting in September or October.  In 2002, our Regional Wildlife Section Head at the time, Bob Forbes, said elk population estimates were 21,000 in the East Kootenay and 3,500 in the West Kootenay. Today, the present population estimates for elk are much lower than that. The population in the trench south of Canal Flats is approximately 7,900, and 2,500 elk north of there in the Columbia Valley. There are an additional 2,500 in the Elk Valley and an estimated 860 in Creston and 100 in the Flathead. West Kootenay populations could still be in the 3,000-plusrange.

In the past few years Wildlife Managers set an objective to reduce Trench populations by over 30 per cent. They succeeded in doing that obviously, mainly through General Open Hunting seasons on cows and calves in the fall.

Another interesting point of note, is  that the Ministry’s estimate of the ratio of migratory to non-migratory elk, is that 37 per cent of the elk  in the South Trench were classified as non-migratory. Data used for this estimation came from the radio collaring program in 2007-2009.

FJ Hurtak is the author of the books “Elk Hunting in the Kootenays” and “Hunting the Antlered Big Game of the Kootenays,” available at selected retailers in B.C. and in Southern Alberta. All profits go to land for wildlife and habitat restoration.