An on-again, off-again wildlife cull in Riding Mountain National Park to control tuberculosis in the herd is back on.
Parks Canada will kill 30 bull elk and 50 whitetail deer in a TB core area hot spot at the western end of the park in early April, park officials said last week.
The wildlife cull aimed at reducing TB was originally scheduled for February, delayed to March and then postponed indefinitely when local First Nations residents objected to conducting the operation from the air by helicopter.
Parks Canada discussed the possibility of a ground cull, using First Nations hunters, but it didn’t happen.
However, after discussions with federal officials, First Nations now accept the helicopter approach and it will go ahead, said Ken Kingdon, wildlife health program co-ordinator for Riding Mountain National Park.
Animals will be netted from the air and blood samples drawn for testing before they are killed by deadbolt.
A similar removal program in the park’s core area last spring killed 50 elk and 50 whitetail deer. Two cow elk and one deer were later found positive for TB, Kingdon said.
The resumption of the cull this spring will please cattle producers around the park who have long felt authorities aren’t doing enough to control TB in wildlife.
The cull represents a major shift in Parks Canada’s TB-control program for Riding Mountain. Previously, the department only captured animals for TB testing. Animals were netted, blood sampled, radio collared and released. Those which reacted positively to the initial TB blood test were tracked down, killed and tissue tested for the disease.
Last year, the capture-andrelease program collared 40 elk in the core area. Ten reacted positively to the test. None actually had TB, said Kingdon.
Also last year, another 75 elk in the central zone were captured and collared. Again, there were 10 reactors, but no TB cases.
This year the capture-andrelease program will target 75 elk in the central zone and 15 elk in the core area, Kingdon said.
Meanwhile, annual TB testing of cattle near the park by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency continues.
Producers have long complained the testing greatly inconveniences them and stresses their animals, which have to be run through a chute twice, first to administer the skin test and later to read the results.
“If there’s any way (producers) could get out of testing, I think they would do it but there’s really nothing you can do about it,” said Connie Ternovetsky, who raises cattle with her husband Kevin near Rossburn.
“As long as the elk are here and there’s that contact between the elk and the cattle, then we have to test.”
Producers also question data from Parks Canada suggesting the number of elk in Riding Mountain park and the TB rate in the herd are both down sharply.
A graph in a March 9 Parks Canada bulletin has the park’s elk population down from nearly 5,000 in 2000 to roughly 2,000 this year.
The bulletin also says the number of TB-positive cases fell from six in 2007-08 (five elk and one deer) to three in 2008-09 (two elk and one deer). All were from the core area.
“Last year’s significant drop in the number of TB positives is a reflection that disease management initiatives are succeeding,” the bulletin says.
Ray Armbruster, a Rossburn producer, said the level of infection in the park hasn’t changed since sampling began in 2002-03.
He also queried the accuracy of the elk count, saying producers in the region report seeing more elk further afield than ever before.
“The Riding Mountain ecosystem has more elk in it that are never surveyed or counted,” said Armbruster, who chairs the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association animal health committee.
Paul Tarleton, the park’s resource conservation manager, acknowledged the drop in the number of TB positives is too small to be statistically significant.
Parks Canada does not have figures on the number of elk outside the park. That would be Manitoba Conservation’s job, he said.
But Tarleton said the drop in elk numbers inside the park is realistic because wildlife are not like livestock.
“There’s not a lot of free board one year to the next. So it’s not like an agricultural situation.” [email protected]