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Posts Tagged ‘Elk’

We don’t really think of antlers as being practical weapons. No species of deer that has them has them year round, and in only one species, caribou/reindeer, do both sexes have antlers.

We tend to think of antlers as being used to attract the opposite sex and for ritualized combat between conspecifics, usually just competing males during the rut in all species but caribou/reindeer. In that species, the females retain antlers well into the winter, which they use fight for preferential feeding areas, a great asset in feeding the calves they carry through the long northern winters.

But we don’t normally think of them as weapons to be used against predators. After all, predators are a problem that plagues deer all year, not just during the rut, and if they were widely used in fighting off predators, one would think they would evolve to hold onto them permanently or at least for longer periods of the year.

Well, a recent paper in the journal Nature examined how these factors work with regard to elk living in Yellowstone, where wolf predation is a significant factor in elk survival.

The authors found that bull elk that lose their antlers relatively early tend to be in better physical condition than those that retain them, and those that lose their antlers early tend to grow larger antlers than those that retain them, simply because they have more time to grow their new antlers in the coming year.

The authors found that there is a massive trade-off for how long elk hold onto their antlers. Those bull elk that lose their antlers are preferentially targeted by wolves. Yes, even though they are in better physical condition than those that retain them, the wolves go for elk that lack antlers as weapons.

Predation from wolves could be driving elk in Yellowstone to hold onto their antlers longer, and it could explain why elk in general hold onto their antlers long after their breeding season.

This study has some interesting implications, because wolves could indirectly be selecting for smaller antler size in elk, simply because the elk that lose their antlers sooner tend to have bigger racks in the following year. Further, because the elk hold onto their antlers longer when they are in poorer physical condition, the wolves could be selecting for weaker elk that are much poorer foragers than they might otherwise be.

These questions were not addressed in the paper, but I’m sure the questions did arise as the researchers looked at their data. More work is going to have to be done, but it is clear that wolf predation is a lot more complex in how it selects for fitness in the elk population than we might have assumed.

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Depiction of elk or wapiti by John James Audubon.

West Virginia is developing a plan to reintroduce elk.

From the Charleston Daily Mail:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin drew applause over the weekend when he told a group of hunters and anglers it could be time to bring elk back to West Virginia.

The governor made the surprise announcement Saturday at a dinner hosted by Sportsmen for Tomblin, a political action committee.

The last native West Virginia elk was spotted 137 years ago. Early settlers over-hunted the animals and deforested the mountains where they lived.

Dave Arnold, the group’s treasurer, said Tomblin’s remarks drew “huge applause” from the 100 or so outdoors enthusiasts dining at the Days Hotel in Flatwoods.

A healthy elk herd could boost tourism from wildlife watchers and hunters alike, said Arnold, part owner of white water rafting resort Adventures on the Gorge. Non-hunters enjoy the large animals’ majesty and their distinct mating calls.

“Sometimes that makes a real big difference in how far people come for watch-able wildlife,” Arnold said. “And, once the population gets big enough – it’ll take years – there will be enough for hunting.”

The governor’s remarks Saturday were off-the-cuff, a spokeswoman said.

On Monday, the governor pointed to the successful reintroduction of elk in Kentucky and other states.

Already, some Kentucky elk are crossing the Tug Fork into West Virginia’s southern coalfields.

“Other states’ elk are migrating right now into West Virginia, and this is something we need to take a serious look into,” Tomblin said through spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin.

Arnold said Tomblin, a Logan County native, wanted to bring the elk back to the coalfields via Kentucky.

The reintroduction program in Kentucky has been more successful than expected. Other states, including Wisconsin, are looking to Kentucky to help them restock.

“I think his words were like, ‘It’s time we start reintroducing the elk into West Virginia, and we’re going to bring them into the southern counties, and we’re going to use Kentucky primarily because they are disease-free,'” Arnold said.

The last free-roaming, native West Virginia elk were spotted on the headwaters of the Cheat River in 1873 and near Webster Springs in 1875, according to the state Division of Natural Resources.

Someone attempted to bring elk back to the state starting in Pocahontas County in 1913. The effort failed.

The state has studied the matter several times since then. In August 2010, the state DNR published a draft plan. The department, spurred in part by the migrations from Kentucky, said the state needs an “effective, science-based elk management plan.”

In 1972, the state concluded a plan didn’t make sense because elk wouldn’t have enough range, would damage crops, would compete with deer for food and would be susceptible to brain worms.

The 2005 study was apparently more optimistic. It found three areas for elk to return to in West Virginia: the coalfields, the west central part of the state and the Monongahela region of the eastern mountains.

In a survey, about 75 percent of coalfields residents were enthusiastic about getting elk back to the state.

“Most residents wanted to have elk for viewing, hunting, or for the aesthetic pleasure of knowing elk are in West Virginia after years of absence,” the DNR found.

But there were concerns about “human/elk conflicts,” among other things.

Some state residents worried about crop damage and vehicle collisions. West Virginia already leads the nation in deer collisions.

Hitting an elk could be a bit like hitting several deer at once. Elk bulls weigh about 700 pounds. Elk cows weigh about 500 pounds. Deer weigh about a fourth as much.

The DNR’s survey also found “that since communities in the southern coalfields region had limited infrastructure, they might not have the ability to benefit economically from elk-associated tourism.”

Some people are complaining about this.

Most of them are Republicans.

But their complaints are honestly for naught.

Elk are going to come into West Virginia, whether they are introduced or not.

They are already working their way from adjacent areas of Kentucky into what are called the “coalfields”– really the whole southwestern part of the state.

If West Virginia’s DNR would help augment introductions through natural migrations, then we could have a health population of these creatures, which, I must say, taste so much better than white-tailed deer.

One noted Republican conspiracy theorist believes elk reintroduction has something to do with banning hunting:

Gov. Earl Ray announced that he is for the importation of elk into West Virginia so they can be hunted. A group called “Sportsmen for Earl Ray” is on board and the “group’s” address is that of Charleston lawyer Phil Reale who is associated with the Big Eared One’s [President Obama’s] campaign and, of course, bans against private citizens having guns for any reason. In addition to the danger to the traveling public [just imagine hitting one of those things in a small car] there is the problem with disease that spreads to domestic livestock — but does the ruling oligarchy care.

Perhaps that’s why they are trying to use brucellosis- and chronic wasting disease- free animals from Kentucky.

And I don’t know why anyone would think introducing an animal for hunting purposes would lead to a ban on guns.

These two issues do not logically follow each other.

In fact, they would be logically mutually exclusive.

My guess is the WVDNR will work out a plan.

And in maybe 10 or 15 years after reintroduction, we’ll have an elk season.

You won’t have to go to Wyoming to get one.

This species of deer was the dominant ungulate in the state at the time of settlement.

The main river that runs through the central part of the state is called the Elk River.

And I don’t think it got that name for no reason.

I bet there were large herds of elk grazing along its banks, and it was just an obvious name to give the river.

Maybe the elk will graze along its banks once again.

Maybe– but only if the conspiracy theorists don’t scuttle the deal.

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Talk about being in the right place at the right time! I’m hoping they are in a vehicle, because I would hate to be near a cow moose that is that irate.

This is amazing footage!

Source.

 

 

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(Source for image)

From West Virginia Public Radio:

West Virginia’s Department of Natural Resources is taking a long look at the state’s growing elk population – an animal that last populated the state’s mountains in the late 1800s.

DNR wildlife officials have cameras trained to spot the 500-700 pound wildlife as it roams throughout West Virginia’s hills and valleys. The department’s assistant wildlife chief Paul Johansen said it’s by chance the elk are coming in from reestablishment programs in Kentucky and Virginia.

“Of course elk don’t recognize state borders,” Johansen said. “They have been observed here in West Virginia. As a result of that, our agency has engaged in a pretty extensive planning process to determine how best to manage that resource that the commonwealth of Kentucky has so graciously blessed us with.”

The elk are primarily found in West Virginia’s southwestern counties. As a result, Johansen said the organization needs to know the elk’s location to best know how to handle them.

“Part of that process is to identify where the elk are and come up with some kind of indices to look at abundance,” Johansen said. “The trail cameras are one technique we will use to monitor that elk population as it continues to be established in West Virginia.”

Johansen said there are concerns about the animal returning to the mountain state for the first time in more than a century.

“Whenever you put a large herbivore in the landscape like elk, you’re going to have positive benefits and you’re going to have negative benefits,” Johansen said.

“Certainly one of the concerns that many people have with regards to elk, especially if they’re in the wrong location, if you will, would be damage to agricultural crops, potential damage with regards to elk vehicle collisions.

“There are certainly a lot of folks, particularly hunters, that would love to see elk restored in West Virginia just from the standpoint of the recreational opportunities afforded by a reestablished elk population.”

West Virginia’s elk population will need to greatly increase before the game will be open for hunting. The DNR’s plan calls for at least 950 animals in a nearly 3,000 square mile area covering seven counties before any hunting activities could take place.

Elk (Cervus canadensis) should probably be referred to as wapiti. The “real” elk is actually what we North Americans call a moose, and the scientific name for the moose, Alces alces, refers to it being an elk.  The deer North Americans call an elk was once thought of as a subspecies of red deer, but an mtDNA study of red deer and other deer in the genus Cervus found that our elk is actually more closely related to the white-lipped and sika deer of Asia than to the European red deer.

Some try to rectify this issue of nomenclature by calling C. canadensis “the North American elk.” This would work, except for two problems:  Moose are found in Eurasia, and the wapiti is found in Central and Northeast Asia.   These are the only deer with anything that approaches a Holarctic distribution.  There are no roe deer or muntjac in North America, and the only white-tailed deer in Europe have been introduced.

So I like to call them wapiti.

Unfortunately, this word is so rarely used that no one knows what I’m talking about.

And trying to explain that Norwegian elkhounds actually hunted moose causes even more confusion.

And did you know that the eland antelope of Africa are also named after the elk?

I guess I’m reduced to calling them elk, even though the term is confusing and inaccurate.

Officially, West Virginia has only one species of deer.  The white-tailed deer is very widely distributed. It’s the deer everyone hunts around here.

Kentucky reintroduced the elk in 1997 from thriving Western populations. They took to the milder Kentucky climate very well, and they have expanded throughout Eastern Kentucky. Currently, Kentucky has the largest elk population east of Montana.

The Kentucky elk range extends up to Kentucky’s border with West Virginia. This part of Kentucky is a major coal mining region, as is that part of West Virginia that lies across the border. There are a lot of remote areas in this part the country, and there are lots of reclaimed strip mines that could provide some open forage for the deer.

That means that they could easily expand into West Virginia. There was a well-publicized herd that popped up in Logan and Boone Counties, but they may not have arrived into the state on their own volition.   It’s a lot easier to procure elk– including elk/red deer hybrids– than one might think.

However, it is very likely that Kentucky elk will make it into West Virginia. The state farm bureau came out strongly against the state introducing the species, but there is nothing stopping the Kentucky elk from moving into West Virginia.

Which is why the state is developing an elk management program.

***

Officially, the last elk killed in West Virginia was in 1875.

However, I came across an account of an elk calf that was captured in the Bear Fork region of Calhoun County, which is a very remote part of the state. It’s actually not very far from where my grandpa grew up:

A party of hunters composed of Mark Farnsworth and Perry Cox, of Auburn, and Army Hardman, of Harrisville, passed through Glenville a few days ago with a subject of the animal kingdom now unknown in a wild state in West Virginia.

The party, including the wives of the members, was returning home from an eight-month camping trip on the waters of Bear Fork and Steer Creek.

They had a live baby elk — perhaps the last to be captured in this state — which was the chief object of attention among a whole menagerie of living denizens which had been captured.

Another very interesting specimen was a Belgian fox. This animal, a native of northern regions, is about twice the size of our native fox.

For seventeen days Mr. Hardman was lost in the forest. The last two days he spent in prayer to which, he said, he owed his deliverance.

The hunters had quite an array of small arms. Ten shotguns, eleven rifles, one French machine gun, firing 100 shots a minute and many smaller arms constituted their armament.

A mockin and rifle, which had been presented Mr. Farnsworth by ex-President Roosevelt and used by him on his South American trip, attracted a great deal of attention.

The “Belgian fox” mentioned in this story is a native red fox.  In the Eastern US, these foxes are less common than introduced British reds. They never were common in West Virginia.

However, this elk calf could have been the last surviving member of its species in the state.

Until the Kentucky elk started wandering north and east.

When you read that this hunting party came with a French machine gun, you can see why elk and other large game didn’t last too long around here!

***

There is a longer story on the West Virginia elk in the Charleston Gazette.

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Source.

I have no idea what the mother moose is going to do, and I wish they had continued filming.

But then, it may have been too dangerous to be in an area where a bear wants to protect its food and a cow moose wants to protect her offspring.

It is more likely the latter, for cow moose are quite vicious in protecting their calves and have killed many more people and dogs than bears have.

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Source.

And unlike this guy (who has degree in botany from the Uni of Wisconsin), I can’t wait until they return to West Virginia. I have read a ton of historical records of elk in West Virginia.  From what I understand, they were once more common than white-tailed deer.

Please note that I’m not talking about what Europeans call an elk.

We call that elk a moose.

The animal we call an elk is very similar to the red deer of Europe. It was once considered the same species as the red deer (Cervus elaphus), but it is now considered its own separate species (Cervus canadensis).

An alternative name for them is waipiti, and they once ranged throughout North America.

They are also found in Eastern and Central Asia, but if they are considered to be the same species as red deer, which they likely aren’t, they would be the most-widely ranging species of deer.

But since they aren’t the same species, that title goes to the other elk– the moose.

 

 

 

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Photo by Dr. Alexander Minaev.

I have been a little late in answering the moose question.

So here’s the deal:

This moose is a dairy moose. The “bell” the moose is wearing is a radio tracking device.

This particular moose is indeed an “elk.” However, it is not a Scandinavian elk at all. It is actually a Russian elk from a very interesting experimental farm in the Kostroma Oblast.

Everyone who reads this blog is aware of the experiments with silver foxes at Dmitri Belyaev’s research facility in  Novosibirsk. What isn’t well-known is the Soviets were very interested in domestication.

Why?

Well, large areas of the Soviet Union and what is now the Russian Federation are not suitable for many domestic animals. Although the Yakuts have a tough horse that can handle the conditions of the tundra, raising most domestic animals was always a difficult undertaking in much of the country.

In the 1930’s, the country was experiencing lots changes. Rapid industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, and the isolation from the outside world put lots of pressure on the Soviet economy. This was a time in which there were both famines in the countryside and the development of what resembled a Western industrial middle class in the cities.

All of this happened under an economic system based upon what was called “socialism in one country.” This meant that the Soviet Union had to produce all of its food and materials from domestic sources. The problem is that while the Soviet Union was very rich in raw materials and natural resources, it lacked both capital and infrastructure to utilize them properly.

The fact that large areas of the country are unsuitable for the grazing of most stock meant that domesticating “more appropriate” species was a bit of a national obsession. One must also understand that this country was also attempting to develop entirely on the collectivist model, which mean that all enterprises had to produce to meet “need.” (“Need” is not the same thing as supply and demand in a market economy.)

That’s one reason why the state was so interested in domestication. That’s why the classical experiment on domestication comes from a Soviet geneticist (which is itself ironic because Lysenkoism was the main “scientific methodology” of heredity in the Soviet Union after 1948.)

The original plan was to domesticate the moose in order to create a super cavalry steed that could run hard in the deep snow and live on twigs. The Soviet government started domesticating moose at several game farms.

This idea isn’t quite as fanciful as it might seem. There are historical sources that the Yakut people had something like domesticated moose. When the Swedes coveted a world empire, they also had moose cavalry units– which actually didn’t work!

In the 1930’s, Soviet science believed that it was at the cutting edge of biology and that they could actually produce amazing new species of farm animal. I think some of what inspired this sort of thinking was the existence of many domesticated reindeer in the Soviet Union. Reindeer are wild animals and are totally unlike other farm stock.  About 3,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer peoples throughout northern Eurasia began to develop a pastoral relationship with reindeer, which eventually led to the development of truly domesticated herds of the species. If these people could domesticate this deer to make themselves self-reliant, why couldn’t the Soviet government do this on a much larger scale?

The moose cavalry idea fell apart. Although they did develop some moose that were suitable for riding, the Soviet Union and Finland went to war with each other in 1939, and such experiments were put on hold.

It was decided to turn the moose into a draft animal for logging operations. Using moose to do this work would be far more efficient, for horses required hay to be able to work long hours with loggers. Moose would be better because they could be fed the branches of the trees that were cast aside from the lumber.

The problem was that all moose calves that were ever to be of any use as draft animals had to be bottle-reared. A horse can be trained even if he is never imprinted on humans at an early age. Thus, you actually need people to raise moose calves for your lumber camps, which you don’t actually need if you’re using horses. And bottle-rearing any animal is very labor-intensive, which means that any benefit from using moose instead of horses is soon lost in that part of producing a good “work moose.”

The other thing was that moose are not as skilled at pulling sleds or logs as specifically bred draft horses are. They may be the same size, but the horse has the right sized muscles in all the right places to actually move these objects efficiently. Because the moose can’t pull as well as horses can, the benefits of using them are even more reduced. Further, of all the photos of draft moose I have seen, I have not seen any that included a team of them. Horses can be used in teams to pull objects, which means they can pull more than any single moose in a harness.

So the domesticated moose failed as a cavalry animal and as a draft animal.

It was decided that they would be the next cow of the North. The whole country would be fed on moose meat.

But that didn’t work either. It was very inefficient to raise them to produce them as a meat animal. They were hard to keep together in lots, and they required large areas of forage.

But the Soviets were not done trying.

They decided that the moose’s real strength could be as a dairy animal.

And that is where things got interesting.

Now, after 1948, Lysenkoism took hold in the Soviet Union. Lysenkoism is a bizarre theory of heredity. It is Lamarckian in that it suggests that what an organism experiences in response to environmental factors can be passed onto its offspring.

One of the problems with keeping moose as farm animals is they are not terribly social. They are tolerant of each other for a bit, but they really don’t live in large herds in the way cattle and sheep do.

If moose were going to be dairy animals, they had to learn how to live in herds. Agricultural land was always finite,and keeping them together in small pastures would be an efficient use of the land. It was thought that if they forced cow moose to live in herds that they would produce offspring that would be more gregarious.

Of course, it didn’t work.

So it was decided to start a free-range moose dairy in what is now the Kostroma Oblast. The moose cows were fitted with radio transmitters, and they were allowed to become free-roaming.

I won’t say that these animals are full domesticated, but if the moose knows a person and that person rubs his or her hands with amniotic fluid,  that person can approach the mother moose and her calf.

And as dairy animals, this is important, because the calves must be taken away from their mothers.

Dairy cows have been selectively bred to develop very weak bonds with their calves. It is such that one can remove a calf from the mother soon after birth and cause minimal stress on the mother. (Although she will likely still make a fuss). This selection most likely came by accident. When the calves were taken, the cows that could produce the most milk soon after the separation were those with weakened bonding towards their offspring.

I wonder if the same selective process has happened here.  When the moose cows drop their calves, they are taken from their mothers just a few days after birth. The calves are then bottle-reared, and they imprint very strongly on people.

However, whatever is going on here, the Kostroma Moose Farm is not able to produce milk throughout the year, and the milk is sold to a local sanitarium.

It is hardly a major commercial enterprise, and it is unlikely that it will ever be, for several reasons. The Kostroma Moose Farm Website lays them out:

1. Moose pastures need special protection from poaching and ban of legal hunting, i.e. it is necessary to guard the whole home range from poachers and preserve biotopes producing moose food on its territory. Therefore, the domestic moose range must become a reserve (specially protected nature area) and this area must be equaled at least 36000-40000 ha.

2. Domestic moose will damage agriculture and silviculture areas. (In Russia this is traditionally ignored because fields and forests seem «everybody’s means nobody’s»). Gardens should be fenced.

3. A moose defending from real or imaginary threat or even playing can injure human.

4. Expensive radio tracking equipment is necessary to reveal animals’ position and movements.

5. To avoid discontinuance in feeding which is very dangerous for moose, a moose farm must have its own forest reserve.

6. The Kostroma farm staff including administration, dairywomen, wood loggers, tractor drivers, wildlife guards, etc. agree by order of magnitude to the number of domestic moose. Breeding moose is very expensive.

7. In many countries a release of tame animals is prohibited by law; and their goodwill return for food, milking and giving birth in enclosures may fall under the definition of capture for sustain in captivity.

8. Some animals will be lost because of their emigration.

9. A prohibitive animal number on one moose farm depends on food productivity of the reserved territory, and in Kostroma region is about 50 in total, including 10-15 dairy moose.

So you need a whole bunch of land, a whole bunch of labor, and certain economic and cultural conditions to keep 10-15 dairy moose. And these moose don’t produce milk as often or in such quantities as dairy cattle.

And the animals are not fully domesticated, and because they are deer, the bulls go through a rutting period in which they are pretty aggressive. The cows are not always tolerant of people near their offspring.

And like some dairy bulls, the young male moose that have been bottle-reared can be  quite aggressive towards people.

One worker described one particularly aggressive bull moose:

“We sometimes call him Bin Laden: he is kind to people he knows but has already forced a few people from nearby villages to spend hours on top of trees.”

Yes, I do know that bulls and stallions can be aggressive animals, but bulls and stallions can be safely contained. If the only humane way to keep moose is to let them be free range, then these dairy moose bulls are going to be a major hazard.

In the end, the idea of domesticated moose is one that sounded good on paper, but when the actual economic, cultural, and ecological reality set in, it now seems a bit like a failure to me.

However, these experiments do tell us a lot about the domestication process, even if their practical utility is somewhat questionable. The distortions that existed under Soviet-style socialism at least led to some scientific understanding about what it takes to domesticate a species and why some animals are unsuited for the domestic lifestyle.

And in that respect, the Kostroma Moose Farm and the whole attempt to create a super taiga steed or bullock does have some merit.

But I don’t see moose dairies popping up all over the world any time soon.

See the Kostroma Moose Farm.

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