In 2013 SCI Foundation became a partner on the Ya Ha Tinda (YHT) elk population project to help support the collaborative program between researchers at the Universities of Alberta and Montana, Parks Canada, Alberta Conservation Association and other natural resource groups within Alberta. Researchers are looking at how changes in the YHT elk population are affected by climate, predation, humans, habitat management and habitat dynamics.
The focus has been on understanding the changing migratory behavior of elk and the dynamics within this predator-prey grassland system. Once Canada’s largest migratory herd of elk, the YHT population has declined over the past decade to the point where there is concern about the population’s viability. In 2013, a pilot program was implemented to monitor the survival of elk calves born from migratory and resident elk cows. The research may be able to show a behavioral change in individual cows that influences their recruitment success.
In the past year the YHT elk project has collared and tracked 77 cow elk. In summer 2014, 31% of the radio-collared adult female elk migrated to the east, 15% of the radio-collared adult female elk migrated west into Banff National Park, and 54% remained resident on YHT.
Researchers have been capturing and tagging calves to determine survival and cause-specific mortality. Last year Thirty-three calves were captured and their survival was monitored. Thirteen of the 33 calves were alive as of 15 October 2014. Of the known mortality causes in 2014, most were attributed to bears (48%), followed by wolves (14%), and cougars (10%).
This project represents one of the longest elk population studies in a system with intact natural predators, including wolves, grizzly bears and human hunting. This research will continue to improve our understanding of the factors affecting calf recruitment into the migrant and resident YHT herd segments. It will provide a better assessment of the adaptability of elk in response to increasing predator densities, and will give insight to what this means in terms of persistence of the YHT herd, allowing wildlife managers to create more effective management plans.