Yukon elk firmly in hunters’ sights

‘We’re sitting on a time bomb,” bellowed retired wildlife biologist Grant Lortie from the back of the room.

‘We’re sitting on a time bomb,” bellowed retired wildlife biologist Grant Lortie from the back of the room.

“And it’s ticking!”

The Yukon elk management planning team, some sitting at the front and others scattered throughout the room, let out a collective groan.

It was unclear whether this was because of the bad joke — aimed at the possible elk tick problem — or because the subject had taken over the meeting.

Tuesday night’s gathering at the Yukon Inn was the final public meeting on the Yukon Fish And Wildlife Management Board’s elk management plan.

“The primary issue is the health of these elk,” said Lortie early in the question and comment period.

A disclaimer at the beginning of the draft management strategy says that it is subject to new findings, he pointed out.

“Well, we have new findings — winter tick.”

Winter or moose tick is most common on moose populations, but can also be carried by elk, deer, bison and caribou.

The tick attaches itself to the host in the fall and stays with the animal until the spring when they detach and lay eggs.

In 1993, additional elk were brought up to bolster an unproductive wild herd that was introduced in the Yukon in the 1950s.

The animals brought winter tick with them.

It was known at the time that the elk carried the parasite, but experts believed that the tick couldn’t survive the Yukon’s frigid winters.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.

“Of the 20 or so elk captured last year for radio collaring — 100 per cent were carrying moose ticks,” said Lortie.

“Has anyone here had any experience with these ticks in moose? Have you seen what it looks like?

“It’s not pretty.”

The ticks are not known to carry lime disease, so there is no danger to people.

The tick also poss no threat to deer and bison, which groom the ticks off themselves fairly well.

Moose are a different story.

Individual moose have been found to carry more than 50,000 ticks.

Heavily-infected animals suffer from loss of hair, body fat and blood, which can lead to death from exposure and starvation.

There has only been one case of a Yukon moose found to possess winter tick.

But it’s only a matter of time before there are more, according to Lortie.

“I’m not here to scare people — I just want to make you aware of what’s at stake,” he said.

“We certainly are taking this very seriously,” said regional biologist Michelle Oakley.

“We’re currently discussing this with other parties in other jurisdictions to see how best to deal with our problem here.”

Even without the ticks, the elk did not have many friends at the meeting.

“The elders and our people see the elk as an unnatural species,” said a Selkirk First Nation representative.

“They are encroaching on the territory and taking habitat — from moose in particular.

“We want to see some action towards having the elk controlled — we need some kind of buffer zone.”

Since the elk were introduced, they have split into two distinct herds, the Takhini herd, which has roughly 150 elk, and the Braeburn herd, with 75 to 100 animals.

“We’ve brought in 170 elk over the past 50 years and they’ve only increased by 55 (animals),” said Peter Percival.

“It seems like we’re spending a lot of money to introduce a species that isn’t thriving at all.

“I’ve never eaten elk, but I do hunt and eat moose,” added Percival.

“And if there is any effect on the moose, I’m going to be really pissed!”

“The goals of this management plan seem to be really elk-centric,” said Yukon Conservation Society executive director Karen Baltgailis.

“Focusing on the impacts on indigenous species should be the number one priority.”

In his open letter to environment minister Dennis Fentie, Lortie made a few suggestions on how to deal with the elk and ticks.

The cheapest and easiest solution would be, “the systematic elimination of all free-ranging elk in southwestern Yukon,” he wrote.

A cull is an option but there are other methods for eradicating winter tick, said Oakley.

“Some areas have achieved success with medicated feeding stations for example.

“We have to look at a whole range of options.

“What may work well in the Takhini area may not work well in Braeburn.”

If the board does decide to recommend a cull, local hunters could be given a chance to harvest the animals.

Already there has been a proposal to enact legislation to allow a potential elk hunt.

The controlled hunt would be aimed at maintaining the elk at their current population.

The board is still screening the option, but a hunt could happen as early as next fall.