Friday, July 23, 2010

Wild About Elk: Elk And People-Issues With Elk

The Wild About Elk workshop which I attended in mid-June was broken down into segments built around areas of specific interest in elk management.  These segments were presented to the class by persons extremely knowledgeable in that specific area of interest, and in most cases by the person responsible for implementing that portion of the elk program for The Pennsylvania Game Commission.

We discussed the presentation by Jon DiBerti, PGC elk biologist, in two previous posts and hope to dwell on a few more aspects of his presentation in the future, but today we begin dealing with: Elk And People-Issues With Elk, which was presented by Elk County WCO (Wildlife Conservation Officer), Doty McDowell who is assigned to perform and direct law-enforcement functions in the core elk range on Winslow Hill and surrounding areas.

WCO Doty McDowell Addresses Workshop On Elk And People Issues: Photo by W.Hill
 WCO McDowell stressed that many elk and human conflicts result from both animals and humans being attracted to the same places.  Much of the human population in the mountainous northcentral region of the state is clustered in the lowlands and of course along roadways.  There is a lot of undeveloped land, much of it owned by the state government and administered by DCNR or the PGC. In most cases, this  land is managed for wildlife or multi-purpose use, with wildlife interests being kept strongly in mind. The problem is that much of this is rugged mountain land, which is less than ideal wildlife habitat in dry summers or severe winters.  This means that elk gravitate to areas where there is more moisture and abundant plant growth and these areas are often near human habitation.  While some are pleased to see the elk near their homes, others are not as the animals can do significant damage to ornamental plants, gardens, and agricultural crops, and may present a hazard to motorists.  This means that a substantial portion of a conservation officer's time is spent in dealing with complaints.  The conservation officer is caught between the proverbial "rock and a hard place"  as a portion of the public is displeased if they remove the animal from an area, but ignoring the complaint is not an option as those with the problem will continue to demand action.

According to WCO McDowell, many of the complaints in the late winter and early spring months arise from the practice of winter feeding.  In many cases this is done to attract bulls with impressive antlers to a certain spot and to keep them in that area until the antlers are shed, so that the person doing the feeding can collect the antlers. It is legal to possess shed elk and deer antlers in Pennsylvania, but they may not be sold. There are few complaints until the antlers are shed, but they increase dramatically thereafter, especially when the animals graze on ornamental shrubs and flowers.

It is currently illegal to feed bear and elk. in Pennsylvania., but bans on the artificial feeding of wildlife is a controversial subject.  Attempts to enforce the elk feeding ban have met with limited success as it seems that in most if not all cases,  those charged with violating the ban have been acquitted in magistrate court by district magistrates not sympathetic to this law in particular, or the PGC in general.  A notable exception is a camp owner that placed hay and possibly a small amount of corn to attract elk to his property during the early years of the feeding ban.  He was confronted by a DWCO (Deputy Wildlife Conservation Officer) about the situation, readily admitted that he had placed the food for elk and paid the fine without contesting the charge.  His position was that he had done nothing morally wrong, but that he did place the feed for elk and would pay the penalty. It seems the most common defense is to claim that the feed is for some other species and I have seen signs that state some variation of the following: "Food For Deer Only!, Elk May Not Feed Here!"

Bull Elk Spar At Feeder: Photo by W.Hill

Since enforcing the ban by arrest and warnings has been less than successful, the agency has attempted to gain voluntary compliance by public education about the problems associated with artificial feeding.

An excellent example of trying to gain voluntary compliance occurred in the early years of the ban before the current educational initiative became the order of the day. This incident involved a retired PGC employee who is also a long time camp owner.  One of his favorite pastimes was going to camp during antler shedding time. He and his family and friends sat in lawn chairs, watching the elk feed in the camp lawn.  A good time was had by all as they socialized and waited, in the hopes that a bull would lose his antlers while they waited. This was a deeply ingrained tradition and an event to look forward to each year, yet suddenly it was illegal.  In this instance the camp owner was approached by a high ranking PGC official and was told that the agency was aware that he was feeding elk and that a "word to the wise should be sufficient".  This was certainly the "decent" thing to do, but some felt it was either unfair or sent an inconsistent message in light of other persons being charged for the same offense.

Yet it turns out that elk-human conflicts and elk habituation to humans is no longer the  primary objection to elk feeding. Instead the PGC now contends there is a scientifically proven link between artificial feeding and elk mortality.

Shelled Corn At A Feeder-Is This A Deadly Food?:Photo by W.Hill

To be continued:

Originally posted by Willard Hill at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer