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Returning Wild Elk to Ontario


Trent University Adjunct Professor Led MNR Program that Successfully Reintroduced Extirpated Species

Monday, March 12, 2007, Peterborough

Over a century after disappearing, wild elk have been successfully reintroduced in Ontario, especially in the Bancroft area, thanks to a Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) program led by Trent University adjunct professor and MNR research scientist Rick Rosatte.

Prof. Rosatte co-authored a study describing the effectiveness of this initiative that appears in this month’s issue of the journal Restoration Ecology.

Once native throughout Ontario, populations of wild elk, also known as wapiti, were decimated during the 1800s due to extensive over-hunting. By 1996, only 60 animals remained in the province. Prior to European settlement in North America, elk populations on the continent are estimated to have numbered in excess of 10 million animals.

“An important finding of this study was that elk that were given the most time to acclimatize to their new surroundings had the greatest rate of survival,” said Prof. Rosatte. “These animals experienced less stress once released and dispersed less outside the preferred habitat range.” Prof. Rosatte explained that this “soft-release” methodology offers a successful model for other projects attempting to restore large ungulate populations in other parts of North America.

Several graduate students from Trent University’s Watershed and Ecosystems Graduate Program were also important contributors to this study. One of these, Ph.D. candidate Terese McIntosh, continues to study the DNA of the released elk in order to assess their long-term viability in the wild.

“Preliminary findings of their DNA indicate that calves that came to Ontario without their mothers had a 100% survival rate,” explained Ms. McIntosh. “These young elk stayed closer to the adults and didn’t wander too far from the original release site, two factors we believe contributed to their improved survival.”

Ms. McIntosh is very pleased with the results of the elk relocation project.

“A lot of relocations haven’t worked in the past, but this one did,” said Ms. McIntosh. “It feels really good to be working with some of the best researchers, not only in Canada, but in North America toward helping wildlife flourish.” The MNR and Trent University regularly collaborate on a variety of wildlife and aquatic research projects to advance the conservation and management of numerous species, such as moose, polar bears, fish and wolves. Graduate students’ research projects are considered a great asset to these initiatives.

Trent University was one of several partners involved in the Ontario elk restoration program conducted by the Ministry of Natural Resources from 1998-2005. During the program, 460 animals from Elk Island National Park, near Edmonton, Alberta then transferred to Ontario. They were released gradually in four regions of the province with habitats deemed suitable for elk reintroduction; these areas were Nipissing/French River, Bancroft/North Hastings county, Lake of the Woods, and Lake Huron North Shore. More than 90% of these elk were radio collared so they could be closely monitored following their release using radiotelemetry.

Over the course of the study, Prof. Rosatte reported that the average mortality rate for the newly introduced elk was 41%, caused by wolf predation, illegal shooting, stress-related emaciation (partially due to the stress of relocating), bacterial infections and collisions with vehicles. Despite this high death rate, three of the four regions showed some growth in their productivity levels by the end of the study period. In particular, elk released in the Bancroft/North Hastings area were the most productive, with 24%-65% of the cows being observed with calves in the late winter surveys conducted during between 1998 and 2004.

Elk populations in the two northern Ontario regions had the lowest productivity rates, with elk in the Lake of the Woods area showing a continued decline. Prof. Rosatte suggests this was due mainly to increased wolf populations in northern Ontario and possibly low cow to bull ratios. This study states, however, that the recent mild winters have contributed to the increased survival of elk overall in Ontario.


For further information, please contact:
Professor Rick Rosatte, Watershed and Ecosystems Graduate Program
Cell: (416) 571-3208