North American elk are the second largest member of the deer family, coming second only to the North American moose (Buckmaster et al. 1999 1). Elk come with an interesting and confusing naming history, as North American elk where mistaken by Europeans as resembling their European moose, which in Europe are called elk (Assinewe 2015). Therefore a second name, often used to prevent confusion with European elk, is wapiti or waapiti which comes from the Shawnee and Cree languages for white rump (Buckmaster et al. 1999 1). Male and female elk can be referred to as stages and hinds or bulls and cows. In scientific taxonomic classification Cervus canadensis in used to identify the large ungulates (National Geographic 2018).
Historically, North America contained six subspecies of elk (Assinewe 2015). There are now four elk subspecies: Roosevelt, Tule, Manitobian, and Rocky Mountain elk (Assinewe 2015). Two of the subspecies, Eastern, and Merriams elk are now extinct (Assinewe 2015). Elk roamed most of North America, covering most of present day United States (Wikipedia 2018). In Canada elk roamed lower mainland British Columbia, all of Alberta, Saskatchewan and southern regions of Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec (Wikipedia 2018).
Today elk are most numerous in the rocky mountain range through western Canada (Wikipedia 2018). Outside of this area there is another large population on the west coast of the United States, after this there are only small selected populations across Canada and the United States (Wikipedia 2018). In Figure 1, the light green represents historic ranges while dark green represents modern ranges (Wikipedia 2018).
Indigenous Cultural Importance
Elk was an important food source for many Indigenous groups across Canada, for example elk was a primary food source being intentionally hunted by the Western Woods Cree and Sekani people (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Hunting of elk by Indigenous groups was dependent on availably and abundance (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). The Red Earth Cree had access to elk but they were uncommon so therefore not intentionally sought out (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Elk also was used as a secondary source to supplement a diet of bison or fish as seen by the Coast Salish and Plains people (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). This move away from elk was more prominent in the plains after the introduction of horses which made bison hunting more effective than before (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017).
Due to the presence of bison across North America, elk generally was a secondary source of food and materials (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Despite being a supplemental source, elk was still an important source for providing Indigenous groups with a wide range of products and trading materials. Like any large mammal elk was most importantly a food source. Not only was just the meat eaten but also the head, lungs, brain, kidneys, eyes, pancreases and bone marrow (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). The elk rectum was washed and cooked with berries inside (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017).
Additionally, the elk hide was able to be used as clothing, footwear and bags (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). In some cases elk hide was also used for tipi coverings (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). The bones and antlers provided material for tools, weapons and sleds (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Teeth and antlers where important aspects of decoration and the teeth are considered spiritual for some groups as two elk teeth are made of ivory (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Elk teeth, specifically the ivory canine teeth, where sewn onto clothes for decoration and also used as a form of currency in some areas (Tylor 1890 54). Further importance of elk can be found in their representation in cave paintings (Keyser and Klassen 2001 96). Elk are easily distinguishable in the paintings from other large ungulates due to the antler differentiations (Keyser and Klassen 2001 96).
Elk are large mammals, weighing in at 325-1100lbs and standing 4-5ft at the shoulders (National Geographic 2018). Figure 2 shows an average elk size compared to a 6ft tall man, with antlers included elk can reach a total height of over 9ft tall (National Geographic 2018).
Antlers will only grow on stages, which are annually shed at the end of winter and regrown in late spring (National Geographic 2018). The antlers are essential to the annual rut where stags fight to determine who will be able to mate with fertile hinds. Once sexually mature, hinds can have one calf per year, elk on average live 8-12 years in the wild (National Geographic 2018). Elk also special in that they have two ivory canine teeth (Tylor 1890 54).
Elk are considered secure and is of least concern in conservation fields, as its population trend is increasing (National Geographic 2018). Elk are a major herbivore which can have large implications to an ecosystem if the population numbers are high (National Geographic 2018). Elk can easily become a nuisance and a problem to grasslands and agricultural fields, as a single adult can consume 20lbs of vegetation a day (US Fish and Wildlife Service 2006 ). Elk tend to feed on grasses, forbs, shrubs, and browse, often eating aspen sprouts (Parks Canada 2017). High numbers of elk concentrated near the Banff town site has caused huge vegetation degradation, as new saplings are highly palatable to elk (Parks Canada 2017).
Elk in Economic Systems and Commercialization
Looking to economic systems and commercialization of elk, following the history chronologically, one can see a clear transition away from Indigenous control and into European/Settler control, and areas where control could be reclaimed. This section will look through 5 main points in elk commercialization: pre-contact Indigenous trade, European fur trade, market hunting, elk farming, and outfitting.
Beginning with Indigenous economic systems of trade, elk was initially seen in the vast Indigenous trade networks across North America prior to contact. The importance of ivory elk teeth in many different groups would have made it to be an important item of trade and gifting, especially in group settings or ceremonies (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Even Indigenous groups who did not have access to elk had the word for elk in their vocabulary (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017).
Moving on to European contact and establishment of the fur trade. Forts often relied heavily on the Indigenous people for survival (Innis 1999 143). Indigenous groups suppled the men at the forts with animals and crops for food (Innis 1999 143). Forts contained a lot of residents who burned a lot of calories, requiring large amounts of food resources to sustain themselves.
With wild meat as a main food source, many large game animals around forts became depleted (Innis 1999 27). As larger game such as bison and moose declined, elk and caribou would be sought after next. Elk was not only a food source for workers at forts, but elk hides were also traded by Indigenous people at forts (Gwyn 2003 73). During the fur trade one can see that Indigenous groups still had relative control over elk resources, despite entering into European market demands. Indigenous people were able to hunt and trade elk commercially for their own economic benefit.
Market hunting took off in the late 1800s and early 1990s, and began with the bison (Federation of Alberta Naturalists 2005 26). Market hunters where a group of primarily settlers who hunted for the sale of hides and meat often disregarding parts of the animal that was un-useful for resale (Federation of Alberta Naturalists 2005 26). As bison decreased, attention turned to other large animals including the elk (Federation of Alberta Naturalists 2005 26). As elk entered the market it was found to be an easier hide to work with than bison so demand and price increased, decimating the overall elk population and even leading subspecies to extinction or near extinction (Federation of Alberta Naturalists 2005 26). We can see with the transition to market hunting the control of commercial and economic elk resources was stripped from Indigenous people.
Jumping ahead to the late 1900s farming elk as livestock is a relatively new industry allowing farmers to ranch elk and sell it for profit (Duckworth 2017). Farmers can sell elk antler velvet and meat, but in recent years with chronic wasting disease farmed elk has become less popular, due to lucrative Asian markets closing (Duckworth 2017). At this point information on Indigenous controlled or owned farmed elk was unable to be found. Elk in this commercial setting is privately controlled, at this point elk is completely eliminated from Indigenous control.
Outfitting is another commercialization of elk. Outfitting is essentially hunting but instead of going out on their own, hunters can pay a guide (or outfitter) to take them out hunting for elk. Literature from the Saskatchewan government clearly outlines that outfitting is not a Treaty right, but Indigenous people are not prohibited from outfitting as long as they adhere to provincial regulations (Government of Saskatchewan 2018 6). Outfitting is one way Indigenous groups can possibly reclaim management of elk.
Threats and Impacts
As mentioned under the above section: elk in economic systems and commercialization, we can see that there has been some significant changes to elk harvesting. In this section we will get more into the impacts of these harvesting changes, threats elk face, and how Indigenous management has been impacted.
Historically, in areas with a bison populations, elk was commonly hunted by Indigenous people before the introduction of horses (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). As horses improved efficiency of bison hunting, elk became a secondary source for many Indigenous people (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Elk population declined in the 1800s due to over hunting and settlement of Europeans reducing habitat Federation of Alberta Naturalists 2005 26). As mentioned before market hunters also greatly contributed to this decline during this time, and by 1922 market hunting was made illegal Federation of Alberta Naturalists 2005 26). Conservation efforts in the early 1900s helped reintroduce elk and stabilize population numbers Federation of Alberta Naturalists 2005 27). The Alberta Natural Resource Act in 1930 allowed the transfer of wildlife to provincial control (Province of Alberta 2018). The downside of this transfer was that the province now had complete control over wildlife resources including Treaty Rights of hunting for food (Province of Alberta 2018). The vague wording of food, gave the province of Alberta authority to challenge the definition of food and limited Indigenous hunting to crown lands and any lands given access (Province of Alberta 2018). This transfer was effectively able to remove any Indigenous authority regarding wild game resources and management.
Although Indigenous management and control was taken away, elk are highly adaptable, which has contributed to their fortunate population resurgence in North America today (Government of Ontario 2010). Elk raised in Alberta were able to be sent to Ontario to help reintroduce an elk population back to the area (Government of Ontario 2010). But with the onset of chronic wasting disease, elk translocation has been halted as the disease is unable to be tested in living animals we have an inability to ensure live transfers are healthy (Parks Canada 2018).
Agriculture has had a large impact on elk populations, but consequently elk has made an issue for farmers too. Agriculture has reduced habitat and natural ranges for elk historically (Government of Ontario 2010). But due to elks resurgence in the 20th century their large population numbers cause them to become a pest as they can cause massive damage to farmers crops from grazing (Government of Ontario 2010). This has led to the public advocating for the reduction of elk herd sizes (Schwanky 2017).
Monitoring and Management
Monitoring and management of elk resources has varied throughout history. This section will look at Indigenous use historically, and today, followed by three current government policies.
Elk management depended on where Indigenous groups where located, and if elk was a primary food source or not (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Hunting seasons differed across Canada, as elk can be hunted year round (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Fall hunts where quite common, but some groups such as the Katzie hunted mainly in June (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Some groups would only hunt once a different species season was over, such as after the bison or pronghorn seasons or during the winter when they could not hunt sea mammals (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Hunting techniques and practices varied, some groups would not hunt elk in forests and instead wait for the elk to make its way to a clearing (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Others would pray, fast, and preform rituals to ask for permission to hunt elk, this was the case for the Anishinabeck people (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017). Additionally, some groups would not stalk elk or kill them while they were drinking (Kuhnlein and Humphries 2017).
Looking specifically at Federal government policies in two Alberta based National Parks, and one Canadian Forces Base we see there are three very different elk management plans at work. Here we will look at Banff and Elk Island National Parks, and Canadian Forces Base Suffield and highlight where Indigenous voices are missing.
Banff National Park created an Elk Advisory Committee in 1992, this committee was designed to help reduce conflicts between humans and elks (Parks Canada 2017). The initial mandate was to increase awareness through education programs and introduce preventative closures (Parks Canada 2017). In recent years Banff has re-vitalized the program to become the Banff National Park Elk Management Strategy (Parks Canada 2017). This strategy developed an adaptive management program, its goal was still to reduce conflict but also focused a new goal on restoring natural ecosystems on lands outside of the town site (Parks Canada 2017).
Through restoration of wildlife corridors, the Banff National Park Elk Management Strategy has helped re-ignite the natural predator and prey relationship to help manage elk population levels and encourage migration behaviours (Parks Canada 2017). Education programs has shown to be effective as repots of aggressive elk dropped by 82% in 5 years (Parks Canada 2017). Additionally, vegetation species have responded to a decrease in browsing (Parks Canada 2017).
Although the Elk Advisory Committee is still part of the Elk Management Strategy, they do not have any specific Indigenous groups listed as stake holders (Parks Canada 2017). Future plans state that they would like to coordinate efforts with other agencies and neighbours, where there is a possibility to push for local Indigenous inclusion.
Elk Island National Park despite its name is more famous for its bison herd, but none the less still has a large elk population. Due to the fence around the park, large animals including elk, are causing damaging to the ecosystem (Parks Canada 2018). With the onset of chronic wasting disease, and a lack of live testing available, the park is unable to translocate or sell elk through their live auction program (Parks Canada 2018). Since testing is available for slaughtered animals, the park is able to sell elk to abattoirs (Parks Canada 2018).
Elk Island National Park does state that when providing animals to organizations, conservation projects that work with Indigenous partners receive priority (Parks Canada 2018). Although elk cannot partake in these initiatives, the fact that this option exists has great future potential for Indigenous inclusion and management.
Hunting and culling are methods of regulating elk population sizes within set ranges. Due to public perception the word hunt is more favourable to a cull. A provincial government example highlighting hunting for elk management is seen in Alberta on the Canadian Forces Base Suffield. Although Canadian Forces Base Suffield is federal land, the hunt is put on by the provincial government (Government of Alberta 2018). Indigenous hunters who qualify under Status Indian and have a right to hunt in southeastern Alberta are allowed to register and hunt without tags, if you are not allowed to hunt in southeastern Alberta you will be required to enter the hunting tags draw (Government of Alberta 2018).
In 1997 elk was re-introduced in the Canadian Forces Base Suffield (Government of Alberta 2018). Over the next 17 years the 200 herd grew to 7000 members (Government of Alberta 2018). A hunt was initiated in 2012 and as of 2017 the Elk Herd Management Program is run by the province (Government of Alberta 2018). The 2018-2019 hunt has issued 930 tags, which will effectively reduce the population by 13% (My Wild Alberta 2018). Talks are in the works for issuing a similar event for Elk Island National Park, which is also on federal lands (Schwanky 2017).
Herd reintroduction and population control are important areas for current and future elk management potentials.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Community Based Management
Traditional Ecological Knowledge is defined as: a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by an adaptive process and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with the environment (Berkes 2018 8).
Focusing on current Traditional Ecological Knowledge in management we will reflect on the literature reviewed and look for future potentials of Traditional Ecological Knowledge to be braided with western science for the benefit of elk.
Current Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Management
Elk was managed by the large Indigenous population in North America prior to European contact. Indigenous practice of prescribed burning was essential to elk management (Karuk Tribe and Tripp 2018). New growth is palatable for elk and was a way to lure elk into an area (Karuk Tribe and Tripp 2018). In the Karuk culture:
Elk represent the traditional male responsibility regarding fire, as men traditionally carry a burning ember in an elk horn to ignite controlled burns that specifically intend to benefit animals. By integrating the needs of large ungulates and associated species, we not only promote important habitats, but we begin to consider and incorporate larger, landscape-scale fire processes. The Partnership, therefore, prioritizes fire adaptation projects that promote elk habitat, such as meadow and glade restoration. (Karuk Tribe and Tripp 2018).
The Karuk are part of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership which focus on traditional ceremonies when making decisions on what species are considered key (Karuk Tribe and Tripp 2018). By focusing on the needs of the elk, the Karuk people also create healthy habitats for other species within the ecosystem (Karuk Tribe and Tripp 2018).
Future Potential of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Co-management
When looking at the elks ability to be quite adaptable to environmental changes, and being considered a secure wildlife, there is more flexibility for the government to help Indigenous groups gain back control over the elk resources.