Herding with hockey sticks

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 townsit

Contact: Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair
University of Alberta

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