Canadian Scientists Using GPS Tracking to Learn about Elk Migration

2 May 2017

Back in January 2016, Sam Metcalf from the Sparwood Fish and Wildlife Association teamed up with certified biologist Kim Poole to shed some light on elk migration issues in the Sparwood area. The team collared 50 elk with GPS tracking to monitor track their movements and locations for a period of three years, with a view to collaring ten more in the future. The main point of the project being to gain an improved understanding of why more elks are following a homesteader trend rather than being migratory.

The information the team are searching for is focused on identifying elk migratory patterns. Specifically, looking at any differences the animals made in past migrations.

For example, many years ago, during summer, many elk trekked up into the mountains. However, nowadays, many stay down in the fields and valleys. Based on their research so far, as many as a quarter to a third of the animals leave the area during the summer months.

The team is also studying the elk population in terms of management. They have a goal to find out how to best manage the animals in the future, for example, to ensure that people only hunt in certain areas to maintain the natural balance.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations has fully supported the project, which was set in motion in the summer and fall of 2015. The body is particularly interested in the potential of managing the elk and ensuring they’re targeting the right animals. They need to ensure they’re not placing an emphasis on harvesting migratory animals, preferring to target residents.

The various pieces of information gathered by the study shows where the animals have been travelling and the number that are migrating contrasted to how many are not. Rates of mortality are also being recorded. Migratory elk are often prey for wolves, bears and other predators. Ones who live closer to town don’t run these same risks and have therefore risen in number. Some of the animals who were collared in 2016 have themselves been killed, either because of predators or vehicle strikes. Some have died of old age.

To fit the GPS tracking collars, the team uses alfalfa to lure the elk into humane traps. From there, one by one the animals are processed through a cattle squeeze. Next, a blood sample is taken, to determine if the females are pregnant at the time, a tracking collar is then fitted. Then, the animal’s overall health is checked before they’re released back into the wild.

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