Shiny collars give elk a fighting chance against cars

New radio collars may prove lifesavers to elk from the Takhini Valley herd. In March, Yukon’s Environment department placed highly reflective…

New radio collars may prove lifesavers to elk from the Takhini Valley herd.

In March, Yukon’s Environment department placed highly reflective collars on 18 female elk in the Takhini Valley and Braeburn area.

The radio collars will allow scientists to track the animals, while the reflective covering will show up in headlights and help prevent highway collisions.

“What we’re really excited about is now we have a way, hopefully, that the travelling public will be forewarned a little bit that there are elk using those really well-vegetated road shoulders,” said Phillip Merchant, wildlife technician with the department of Environment.

Merchant estimates that at least six animals from the 200-member Takhini Valley herd are struck and killed by highway traffic each year.

While highway fatalities may be reduced, the elk are now facing a new danger. When placing the collars on the elk, biologists found winter ticks on all 18 animals.

The winter tick does not carry Lyme disease or any other tick diseases that are transmitted to people, said Michelle Oakley, territorial veterinarian.

While not a threat to human health, they can be dangerous to the few moose, which share the same habitat.

“The current risk to moose in the Yukon from winter ticks carried by elk is probably low since the moose numbers are low in the Takhini Valley where the majority of the elk live,” said Oakley.

It’s not yet known just where the winter ticks came from.

Some elk released from captivity in the early 1990s carried winter ticks, but at the time it was believed that ticks could not survive in the territory, said Oakley.

“Warmer weather in recent years may have contributed to increased survival of the ticks,” she said.

“Also, Yukon elk reuse the same spring and fall habitat, which may be amplifying the infestation because in the fall the elk will be picking up the same ticks they dropped in the spring.

“Really though, more work is needed to understand the impact these ticks have on elk and other wildlife.

“That’s why the radio collaring program is so good — because it allows us to study the elk up close while we’re applying the collars.”

Meanwhile, drivers should be on the lookout for sudden bright flashes in the roadside bush.

“It’s a good thing wolves don’t have flashlights,” said Merchant.