Coming home:

The Northwestern Ontario Elk Restoration Coalition is putting together a proposal that would see elk re-introduced to the area southeast of Sioux Narrows next winter–and possibly earlier.

The group met again last night in Kenora to finalize the site plans, and soon will be getting public input on the issue.

Once the proposal is in place and approved, the group will start recruiting volunteers to help get things ready–including raising some $70,000 to cover shipping, veterinary, and monitoring costs (all the animals will be fitted with radio collars).

“We’d be looking at least 100 [elk],” Bruce Ranta, area biologist with the Ministry of Natural Resources office in Kenora, noted Monday. “I guess how much money we need depends on our plan.”

“We have about one-third of what’s required already,” said Fort Frances resident Mike Solomon, who co-chairs the committee with Murray English of Kenora.

Some of the proceeds from next month’s OFAH Conservation Dinner here also are earmarked for the project.

This isn’t the first elk restoration project Ranta has been involved with. While there were unsuccessful releases in 1909 and 1932 south of Sudbury, last year saw the first recent attempt to re-establish wild elk herds in Ontario with animals taken from Elk Island National Park in Alberta (a fenced in park that houses bison, deer, moose, and elk).

Ranta, who did graduate work on the elk population south of Sudbury, played an active role in that release–the first of six areas across the province deemed as historic elk locations and identified for future releases.

All 47 elk arrived at that site alive but problems during transport–including winter road closures that forced an unscheduled two-day layover in Virden, Man.–contributed to 10 mortalities.

“There’s still over 30 of them that we let go that are still alive,” Ranta said, noting they were waiting until spring to see the success with calving.

“We know that we’re going to have some mortalities,” he continued, explaining the animals went through a great deal having their horns cut off for transport, being treated for parasites, and having blood tests done.

“Our job is just to minimize that,” he said.

That will include moving the animals earlier in the winter, padding the paddocks to prevent injuries, and having a contingency plan in the event there are delays.

Elk have been rare to non-existent across Ontario since the mid-19th century. Ranta noted there were written reports of elk sightings at the turn-of-the-century and a 1932 document recorded eight elk shot in the Northwest Angle, Mn.

Ranta, along with colleagues working on the project, suggests their demise was almost totally related to commercial hunting in the early 1800s.

While some loss may be due to habitat changes, he noted most of the habitat loss came after the elk were extirpated.

“There are some elk still around although not too many,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty exciting project. They’re probably the most magnificent of all the deer species in North America.”

“I would like to see a herd of wild elk established across Northwestern Ontario. It’s really something that I feel deeply committed to,” Solomon said, stressing it was important to help sustain the area’s natural resources.

“I personally feel that we have to start giving something back,” he added.

But the million-dollar question is whether the population, when introduced, will be able to sustain itself. If the population increased 10 percent a year, which Ranta said was quite reasonable, it would double ever decade.

And if things went well, it could double within five years.

“We’re hoping it’s between five and 10 years,” Ranta said, noting the herd would have to become 500-1,000 head strong before the restoration project was considered a success.

“It’s the animals themselves that are going to tell us what’s successful. [But] we think they’ll do quite well,” he added.

The big challenge now is to get the message out. Solomon said he’s willing to make presentations to groups wanting to learn more about the project, and the group plans to hit local television stations soon to explain the project.