Herding with hockey sticks


Elk trained to stay away from tourists

There are no hockey sticks waving around on NHL ice this holiday season, but travel to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, and you'll see plenty of them. The game? Keeping elk at a safe distance from their adoring fans.

Researchers at the University of Alberta have found a way to keep elk in the park's townsite from clashing with tourists, but still close enough that they can be viewed and enjoyed in their wild habitat.

"This is win-win ecology," said Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor of biological sciences. By subjecting the animals to pyrotechnic noisemakers and herding dogs, the research team was able to increase the distance at which the elk to take flight from approaching humans. The management strategy has since been put into use by Banff park wardens using hockey sticks. By high-sticking--raising the sticks above their heads, the wardens appear larger than the elk, which is enough to frighten the wary animal away and help prevent potential classes with humans.

The approach teaches elk to have a healthy respect for people, while accommodating the animals' need for high-quality forage around the townsite. St. Clair and M.Sc. student Elsabe Kloppers, the lead researchers on the three-year project, were able to stickhandle their way to success through aversive conditioning; or getting the elk to avoid certain unpleasant stimuli--in this case an aggressive chase--and punishing them with this same stimuli for certain behaviours. A few dozen of Banff's habituated elk were divided into three groups. When they were within the town boundary, two of these groups were chased for 15 minutes by border collies--known for their herding skills--or by humans making noise. The third group of animals served as a control to measure the responses.

It was determined that humans and dogs were both effective in increasing the distance in the elk's flight response, but humans were more effective at teaching elk to avoid the townsite.

St. Clair and Kloppers began studying the problem three years ago, when serious concerns were raised about incidents in Banff. Over the past decade, elk in the town had become increasingly used to people. By 2001, park staff were recording seven incidents per year where an animal had made physical contact with a human, often with resulting injuries to the person.

The presence of the elk was also drawing unwanted attention from other predators, such as wolves, posing another threat to humans.

The dilemma was to keep the elk at a safe distance, without having to either relocate them or destroy them--two options that had been used in the past.

"The problem is basically solved in Banff," St. Clair said, adding that similar solutions may be possible for elk in other areas and for other animals like bears that are prone to habitutation.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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