Elk restoration project threatened by poaching

Are the efforts to re-introduce elk into Northwestern Ontario doomed to failure because of illegal harvest?
According to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Natural Resources office in Fort Frances, the higher-than-anticipated mortality rate due to hunters has put the entire project in jeopardy.
“I don’t know if it’s mistaken identity or intentional, but there has been a significant number of animals taken,” said Linda Wall, area supervisor (Rainy Lake) for the MNR here.
“At the end of the day, the elk are still dead,” she added.
Wall noted the animals initially were brought in from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, the MNR anticipated there would be a certain amount of mortality.
Allowances were made for wolf kills, highway deaths, and the odd case of mistaken identity, but the death rate has vastly exceeded the predictions.
“We just did not expect this,” she stressed. “Our concern, at this point, is [that] the herd is getting so low, its ability to sustain itself may be in jeopardy.”
Wall also said the mortality rate due to poaching is significantly higher in the Kenora-Rainy River area than in the Bancroft and White River areas, where elk also have been re-introduced.
She added this project is a one-shot deal: There are no plans to bring in any more animals because of the risk of importing Chronic Wasting Disease to Ontario.
Thus far, the province has remained free of this disease, which is similar to BSE (mad cow disease) in cattle.
“There is a moratorium [on imports],” she explained. “The intention was to bring in a few more, but we are not importing any more from out west because of CWD.”
Of the original herd of 104 animals, Wall estimates there are now only 35-45 remaining. Eighteen have been confirmed as shot, but she fears the actual number could be much higher.
“We only find the tip of the iceberg,” she remarked.
In addition, 15 animals have been taken by wolves while one crossed the river to Minnesota and was killed by a train. But the real problem remains illegal harvest.
That’s why Wall had a booth set up in the arena at the Emo fair last month, where she tried to bring the problem to the public’s attention.
“We were there [in Emo] for two reasons,” she noted. “We want to educate hunters, but as well we are imploring people to turn in the poachers.
“Somebody knows who’s doing this and we need their help.”
As well, the MNR and Northwestern Ontario Elk Restoration Coalition (NOERC) have put up a dozen signs at highly-visible locations throughout the district to remind hunters to take extra care in identifying their targets before they pull the trigger.
Meanwhile, not everyone share’s Wall’s pessimism.
NOERC co-chairs Mike Solomon of Fort Frances and Murray English of Kenora both have been closely following the movements of the elk since they were brought here and seem to feel there are, in fact, more of them left than does the MNR.
They do, however, acknowledge that poaching is a serious problem. Solomon thinks he knows why.
“We’re remote and isolated here,” he explained in a telephone conversation last week. “We have the largest deer population in Ontario and therefore, more hunters.”
Nonetheless, by his account, the MNR has underestimated the true number of animals remaining. He did not offer an estimate of his own, but he is convinced the MNR is not accounting for all of them due to a lack of resources and personnel to adequately monitor the animals.
Some of the elk have been fitted with radio collars, but not all.
“There’s no way you can count them all from the air,” he remarked. “I’m seeing cows with calves showing up at salt licks.
“I’m optimistic.”
English also is optimistic, which he is basing on information that may be more current than that which the MNR has.
“Mike [Solomon] and I are basing that on recent sightings over the last few months,” he said by telephone from Kenora last week, noting the MNR’s estimates are based on winter surveys.
According to English, there currently are 21 collared animals and 24 without collars that have been accounted for, but based on his extrapolations, that translates into at least 70 animals.
He also took into account sightings by trappers from Ignace, Cedar Narrows, and Eagle River, who attended a recent convention in Kenora. Based on their findings, English estimates there could, in fact, be as many as 84 animals still out there.