Edmontonians flocked to Elk Island National Park’s final open house Thursday night as Parks Canada evaluates how to handle an overpopulation of large wildlife.
Based on an aerial census, Parks Canada says Elk Island has around 140 surplus bison, 250 extra elk – and in its southern section, about 120 too many moose (though there is space for moose elsewhere in the park).
The reason there are too many animals is that Elk Island is Canada’s only completely fenced national park and it has few predators within its boundaries.
“There’s overbrowsing happening to our rangeland into our forest,” said Robyn O’Neill, a communications officer with Elk Island National Park.
“The animals are eating a lot of the environment, they’re eating all the trees and more than the land can sustain.”
There are numerous options the park is considering, including hunting.
“(It could) be done by park staff supported with indigenous partners as well as possibly open to the public,” O’Neill told Global News Monday evening. “The other options we have would be a direct sale to the abbatoir (slaughterhouse) and that would be for bison, moose or elk.”
The Chief of Papaschase First Nation said he believes hunting is the best option.
“That’s our traditional land and territory for the Papaschase. So I’d like to see our people being able to hunt and being involved in there,” said Chief Calvin Bruneau.
“A lot of people don’t have those skills, so we’d be able to teach younger people about hunting and fishing to carry on our traditional way of life.”
Bison can be relocated to other parks, but the elk and moose cannot because dead animals outside the park tested positive for chronic wasting disease – described by the Alberta government as a “progressive, fatal, degenerative disease of the brain of free-ranging or farmed ungulates.”
All animals would be tested for disease before being approved for human consumption.
“Part of our responsibility as Parks Canada is ensuring that we have healthy populations and it’s not ethical if we have populations that are in the park and can’t be healthy and if we don’t do something about it, probably Mother Nature will,” O’Neill said.
Animal rights activists want the park to explore non-lethal options.
“We don’t want to see the interests of hunters being put first over the interests of wildlife because that often becomes a reiterative process of hunters being allowed in every year to kill more wildlife,” said Jordan Reichert with the Animal Alliance of Canada. “That’s not something we support and we don’t think it’s something the public supports.”
Similarly, Bruce Chisholm, chairman of the Wild Elk Federation, wants Parks Canada to consider other options. The federation used to help relocate wild animals from the park, before the practice stopped in 2012.
“A cull is always distasteful,” he said. “Our national parks are sacred places for animals, always have been.”
One of the options that would keep animals alive is building a different kind of fence around the park.
“It would allow elk and moose to leave the park, and it could be engineered in such a way that the elk and moose would not be able to come back in,” explained Dale Kirkland, Elk Island’s Superintendent.
Introducing more predators is not currently being considered.
“We simply don’t have the ability to contain a wolf pack within the park and we need to be very mindful and respectful of our neighbouring agricultural friends as well,” Kirkland explained.
No decisions have been made yet and Parks Canada will continue to solicit public feedback on their website until the end of June.
A plan could be implemented as early as this fall.
– With files from Phil Heidenreich