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033 Bulletproof elk, exploding bear spray, and drones in the high country

This week I’ll examine a recent report that shows that elk can become largely immune to hunters over time. I’ll also speak with Lyndsay Kearns who had the unforunate luck of having a canister of bear spray explode in her car, and finally, I’ll share the final part of our three part climate change series with a presentation by Dr. Joe Shea from the newly established cold water research centre in Canmore, Alberta.

Story 1 – Bulletproof Elk

A recent study published in the journal PLOS One has brought some amazing insights into the behaviour of female elk in the Rocky Mountains. The study took place in southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia. It looked at the behaviour of female elk when confronted by hunters and how they are able to learn to effectively avoid the hunters completely over time…and when I say avoid…They become virtually bulletproof by the age of 9 or 10.

In any animal population, there will be two sets of behavioural traits, those they are born with (such as personality and temperament), and those they learn over time. This study looks to see how female elk learn to effectively evade both bow and rifle hunters over time.

They satellite collared female elk and then looked into whether behavioural differences  based on age were due ONLY to pressure from hunters, meaning that more timid elk were naturally more likely to survive, or whether the elk could learn new behaviours over time to increase their odds of surviving into old age.

In any predator-prey relationship, predators may seek certain behaviours in their prey, while the prey also adopt behaviours designed to make them less vulnerable, such as moving to less risky locations.

Many of these responses seem to be based on experience dealing with either predators, or in the case of elk, hunters. This gives older female elk an advantage over younger, less experienced individuals. The higher the pressure, the stronger will be the elks reaction. This is especially evident during the hunting season where the elk will experience intense pressure from numerous hunters over a short period of time.

The study found that animals react quite rapidly to changes in their home range. These include new predators arriving or even increased disturbances by people. The changes in behaviour show that the animals are learning to adapt to new conditions over time.

In this study, hunters were the main predator putting pressure on the elk. New high powered rifles allow elk to be taken at distances of 300 m or more. The study focused on female elk, because the hunting pressure on them is lower than it is for bulls. They can also live as long as 20 years or more and are highly social, living together in groups through survive successive hunting seasons.

As some females in the herd are shot, the remainder have an opportunity to alter their behaviour and to learn from the experience. The fact that the hunting season is limited to a short period allows the elk to take more extreme measures, such as moving to more inaccessible areas, in order to reduce their exposure to hunters. They may also move around less which also makes them more difficult for hunters to spot.

As elk gain more experience, they seem to become more and more successful in evading hunters. By the age of 9 or 10, they are essentially bulletproof.

The study also looked into whether personality types made a difference in survival. For instance, were bolder individuals killed more quickly, and thus making up less of the population in older elk.

During the study, female elk were fitted with satellite collars that allows biologists to track their movements over time. From their locations, they could analyze how they used forest cover and rugged landscapes to escape hunters.

As female elk aged, they moved less, making them less easily spotted by hunters. They also increased their use of more rugged landscapes more during bow hunting season than during rifle season. This may be due to the fact that bow hunters need a closer approach and rugged terrain will make that more difficult. It also increases the chances that the hunter will be discovered.

Rifle hunters, however, can shoot long distances into rugged terrain as they may be more visible if they are on slopes as compared to flatter ground.

While female elk normally reduce their use of forest cover with age, they will increase its use if they are near roads where hunters may be present. Their strategies change when they are in areas where the likelihood of being spotted is higher.

The elk actually used different methods of evading hunters depending on the type of equipment the hunters used, such as bows vs rifles.

Most of the bold elk are killed at a young age, so the population gets more timid with age. As the saying goes, there are no old-bold elk. But the elk that get old, can become bullet proof.

Story 2 – Exploding Bear Spray

Have you ever left your bear spray in your car? OK, be honest. You know you have. I would bet that most of us do this all the time. My guides pack has been living in my car through entire seasons with my trusty bear spray in its holster. Well that all changes right now!

Last weekend, Lyndsay Kearns returned to her car after a long bike ride to discover that her canister of Saber Wild Max bear spray had exploded in her car. The hot sun, heated up her car to temperatures high above the recommended storage temperatures and after cooking for a few hours…kaboom. The canister was completely destroyed and her car was seriously damaged. Everything was saturated with bear spray.

Before I had an opportunity to speak with Lyndsay, I took out a magnifying glass and read the tiny notices on the side of the canisters and came across this message:

Photo Copyright Lyndsay Kearns 2017

“When traveling, do not store in a passenger compartment. Container may explode if heated. Do not place in hot water or near radiators, stoves or other sources of heat. Do not leave in a hot vehicle. For safety and performance do not store above 50C or below 0C”

Say what? I guess this makes sense, but I’d never really thought much about it. Well I will now. Yesterday Lyndsay was nice enough to let me interview her for the podcast. She’s been in Canmore since 2009 and is an avid lover of the local mountain bike scene. If you want to listen to the interview, the link to listen to the episode is at the top of this post. The interview begins at the 7:50 mark.

From her experience, it’s critical that we don’t store bear spray in our cars when we’re not in them. The bear spray should also not be stored in the passenger compartment if possible. For those of you with sedans, keep it in the trunk, away from people. I’ll also be ordering a Bear Spray Safety Container from Kodiak Wildlife Products. For $20, it offers a saleable storage container that protects the canisters against heat  and accidental impact that could damage the canister and lead to accidental releases. You can order one of these canisters here: Bear Spray Safety Container

And don’t forget that canisters should not be stored in your car in the winter either. Although they SHOULD not freeze, I did come across one video that showed a car where the canister exploded when left overnight in cold temperatures. So my advice, store it in a safety container when traveling, and keep it indoors at night. Yikes…what a mess.

Story 3 – Dr. Joe Shea Presentation

Dr. Joseph Shea is a climatologist focusing on high elevation landscapes using unmanned aerial vehicles. On a daily basis, he runs the new cold water research lab in Canmore, Alberta and is recognized as one of the top snow and ice scientists in the world.

His presentation looks into the use of drones in high elevation climate science.

I hope you enjoy Dr. Shea’s presentation. The new Cold Water Research Lab in Canmore is poised to do some amazing research and I look forward to sharing some of their discoveries in upcoming episodes.

During his presentation, he lists the Transport Canada rules for flying drones, but one thing that should be added is that all national and provincial parks prohibit all drones with the exception of special permits like the ones that Dr. Shea uses.

Don’t forget that if you’re looking for a unique Rocky Mountain Experience, drop me a line a I’ve been helping people build memories for the past 30 years and Ward Cameron Enterprises can provide you with custom guiding solutions, wildlife ecology and bear safety workshops, as well as keynote speakers. We do one thing and we do it well..we sell wow!

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