The elk are back

Elk transplants to Squamish Valley have been successful

The wildlife stars of the Sea to Sky Corridor have been its black bears, but a charismatic newcomer is defying the odds and making a comeback - the Roosevelt elk.

The reintroduction of Roosevelt elk to the Upper Squamish River Valley is part of a B.C. Environment Ministry program, in which a series of transplants have brought elk back to the Sea to Sky Corridor.

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"We are trying to restore natural biodiversity and bring elk back into the environment," said Darryl Reynolds, senior wildlife biologist for the Ministry of Environment Lower Mainland region. "The elk recovery is going well."

Once a familiar face in the region, unregulated hunting at the turn of the century destroyed elk populations in the Sea to Sky and Lower Mainland. The ministry has been trying to change that through a series of transplants that draw upon a booming herd on the Sunshine Coast.

"We brought elk to the Sunshine Coast in the mid '80s and that population has done really well. There are about 200 and we have been using it as a source - moving between 20 to 50 elk per year to other places," Reynolds said.

In 2007, Reynolds and his crew moved 27 elk from Powell River to the Elaho/Ashlu Creek River area in the Squamish Valley.

John Buchanan, local naturalist, has received reports of the occasional elk sighting and said he is hoping to get the magnificent creatures on camera soon.

"I have started to received sightings in the valley," Buchanan said.

Transplants typically occur in winter when elk can more easily be lured into corrals with alfalfa, molasses, apples, and a combination of corn, oats and barley, and when colder temperatures help prevent overheating of the animals.

Trucks and barges are used to transport them to remote locations. The province's Habitat Conservation Trust Fund, along with hunter groups and businesses, has assisted with the relocations.

"The elk in Squamish have been doing well. Getting counts is premature right now. The elk are finally productive but they are slow to colonize a new habitat because they are an extremely social animal and don't leave herds until numbers are large," Reynolds said.

Roosevelt elk - Cervus elaphus roosevelti - are about one-fifth larger than their Rocky Mountain cousins, at 225 kilograms and up for adult females, 500 kilograms and up for males.

Colour phases range from tawny to reddish brown and, unlike the Rocky Mountain elk, whose antlers are long, wide and sweeping, the spread of a Roosevelt elk's antlers can be quite narrow. Occasionally, the antlers consist of short, heavy, straightish beams that end in a short cluster or crown.

Reynolds said the primary push for the project is an effort to restore the biodiversity that was lost at the turn of the century. He said elks play an important role in the ecosystem.

"Elk create trails in the forest, till the soil with their hooves and plant seed with their droppings," Reynolds said. "They are also a large source of protein for predators."

In terms of tracking the growing number of elk in the Squamish Valley, Reynolds said the ministry relies on anecdotal information from naturalist groups and eyewitnesses. Reynolds also completes helicopter surveys throughout the summer to keep track of herds.

A hunter himself, Reynolds predicts a limited hunt on the new elk herds in about five to 10 years if populations continue to grow.

"I think a lot of people find elk very exciting because they are big and they are easy to see and watch. I mean they are a very wild and majestic species," Reynolds said.

If you are hoping to spot elk in the Squamish Valley, Reynolds said you will often find them along rivers and in riparian areas as well as along lakeshores where young plants can be found.

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