Roosevelt ElkCervus elaphus roosevelti
Of the approximately 3200 Roosevelt elk residing in British Columbia, over 3000 live exclusively on Vancouver Island. Once widespread throughout southern BC, human activity and expansion slowly extinguished the elk on the mainland, leaving only Vancouver Island to support this species in Canada. Residing primarily in the northern portion of the island, these elk are a relatively common sight, and are often found browsing on the leafy undergrowth on the side of the Island Highway or on the edge of clear cut forest patches.
The largest of the elk family, the Roosevelt elk can reach 500kg (male) at maturity, and lives for approximately 12-15 years. They migrate locally, moving to lower browsing sites as the winter approaches, and heading upwards to the areas with young, seasonal growth in the late spring. The Roosevelt elk is a grazer during the warm months of the year, preferring grasses, new shoots, and sedges; and is a browser in the winter, preferring the small, woody plants that remain leafy during the cold.
Vancouver Island Range - http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/elk.pdf
The Roosevelt elk, being a large and herd-living mammal, needs an extensive range in order to support a stable population. A typical mainland Canada population of elk has a density of around one to two animals per square kilometer, but on Vancouver Island, due to their restriction to the northern regions, densities in areas can reach up to six per square km. This results in range pressure, and often these animals are seen grazing close to roads, on the edges of fields and clearcuts, and near the ocean, much lower in altitude than they naturally would.
North of Campbell River, Roosevelt elk density is at its highest. Few are found in central Vancouver Island (though a few herds reside in the foothills of Strathcona Park), with the next dense distribution occurring in the mountainous regions inland from Nanaimo and Duncan. Occasional animals are seen as far west as Port Renfrew.
Like any large mammal, the primary concern for the Roosevelt Elk is habitat destruction. With herd ranges of up to 4000 acres, any loss of their preferred habitat is destructive. On Vancouver Island, there is the added problem of fragmentation. Although ample habitat exists on the island for the current levels of elk, many local populations are at risk of extinction due to inaccessibility of the habitat fragments. Once a herd’s range is made too small to support it, the animals must find new habitat, or face extinction over the winter months, when browse is scarce.
Being the largest living elk brings additional consequences. The Roosevelt elk is hunted extensively on Vancouver Island, both legally and illegally, and its superior antlers are prized as trophies among the game hunting community. Already under pressure due to habitat loss, the yearly reduction in numbers due to hunting provides an additional stress on this small community.
Though these certainly are problems worth mentioning, the Roosevelt elk are quite successful on Vancouver Island, and face little natural predation. Cougars generally avoid them, preferring the smaller and less aggressive black tailed deer, and the only other predator capable of killing a fully grown elk is the Vancouver Island wolf, which exists in relatively few numbers.
Why they are Important on Vancouver Island
The preservation of biodiversity in BC is undoubtedly a worthy goal. As Vancouver Island is the last remaining stronghold of Roosevelt Elk in Canada, we have an obligation to protect these herds. They also play an integral part of the ecosystem on Vancouver Island, promoting new growth by clearing the underbrush in the spring, and providing another rare species, the Vancouver Island wolf, with an invaluable food source.