Human Activities Cause Threat to Elks: Study

First Posted: Nov 29, 2012 01:36 AM EST

Researchers at the University of Alberta (U & A) state that wolves are no more a major threat to elk, one of the largest species of deer, as human activity and encroachments have led to a greater disturbance in their environment.

The researchers noticed the elk were frequently and easily disturbed by all-terrain vehicle drivers than their natural predators.

The U & A team was led by biologist Simone Ciuti who spent nearly 12 months in southwestern Alberta. This study involved elk herds made up of females and their offspring.

For this study the researchers carefully noticed the animals' reactions to different rates of human disturbances in the form of traffic on and off-road.

It was reported by the researchers that the elk they used in their study were found on a variety of land types such as private, public and inside the Waterton National Park.

The study revealed that starting with a rate of just one vehicle passing by an elk herd every two hours, the animals became disturbed and more vigilant. During this period, they noticed that the elk consumed less food, which affected their health and possibly their calving success.

Highest disturbance was noticed on public lands where the effect of hunting and ATV use was cumulative.

Contrary to what some people might expect, elks inside the Waterton National Park during the busy summer tourist season displayed less disturbance reactions than elk in more remote, unpopulated public land settings where motorized recreational activities were permitted.

According to Ciuti this indicated that the animal's reactions were not formed by the number of people but by the type of human activity they're exposed to.

In order to get first hand information on the natural behavior and not alter their behavior the researchers observed the elk from a long distance. They took detailed notes documenting the frequency and amount of time the elk spent scanning the horizon for danger rather than foraging for food.

According to Ciuti, the University of Alberta gave him invaluable experience as a field biologist.

"Observing elk, especially in December, can be physically demanding, but you see things you can't even imagine, like a grizzly bear chasing an elk herd, trying to single out a calf," he said. "The U of A is the right place to be if you want to study animal ecology."

The research was published Nov. 28 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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