Elk-agriculture conflicts in the Greater Riding Mountain Ecosystem : building bridges between the natural and social sciences to promote sustainability

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Brook, Ryan K.
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Successful mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts requires an approach that incorporates both the ecological aspects of wildlife and the social considerations of the affected stakeholders and these must be considered in an integrated fashion at multiple temporal and spatial scales. In this dissertation, I examine the relationship between farmers around Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP) in southwestern Manitoba and the regional elk (Cervus elaphus) population, in order to better understand and resolve these long-standing conflicts more effectively. Local perspectives were documented throughout this study, initially through 40 community meetings in 2000 and 2001 prior to formal data collection, then through a mail-out survey in 2002, and later through participatory mapping exercises from 2003 to 2006. A longitudinal analysis of historical information regarding elk-agriculture conflicts using the interviews and government letter files indicated that diverse types of conflicts have occurred annually for the last 127 years. Issues related to bovine tuberculosis (TB) in elk in the last 15 years have been some of the most intense conflicts ever occurring, but these are based on previous conflicts and they have further undermined the already strained relationship between farmers and RMNP. The most important factor associated with high concern regarding bovine TB was the frequency that farmers observed elk on their land. To examine the biophysical aspects of elk interactions with agriculture, 212 wild elk were captured from 2002-2005 using a net-gun fired from a helicopter and given a GPS satellite collar (n=25) of VHF transmitter (n=187). Overlap in space use between elk and cattle was high in summer and low in winter based on both the collar data and local knowledge, though farmers identified higher levels of overlap throughout the year. During the spring elk calving period, the home ranges of 73% of the parturient elk remained entirely within protected areas, while 6% were exclusively on farmland, and 21% included both. The proportion of the elk population calving on farmland continues to increase from near zero in the 1970s. Hay yard barrier fences are the most effective and widely accepted management tool in use to mitigate elk-agriculture conflict, but modifications to the process of allocating and monitoring fences are needed. Indeed, all aspects of the management of elk-agriculture interactions require greater levels of communication and collaboration between government agencies and local stakeholders. I also advocate taking an adaptive, science-based approach to managing human-wildlife conflicts that focuses on both the social and natural sciences as mutally contributing to our understanding of the problems and generating meaningful solutions. This is one of few studies that makes use of local knowledge and conventional ecological data together, and demonstrates the contributions of both in better understanding the temporospatial aspects of wildlife-human conflicts and their socioeconomic and conservation implications.