Parks Canada is celebrating the country’s 150th birthday by giving away Discovery Passes to Canada’s network of national parks and national historic sites.
It’s a popular program that’s likely to result in a spike of visitors to Canada’s special places, especially the mountain parks. There are already concerns about whether the parks can handle the stress on their ecosystems and wildlife.
Almost 60 years ago, Prince Albert National Park faced a completely different problem — animals ranging outside the park and feeding on farmers’ crops.
The culprit was the elk, a so-called “good” animal that enjoyed a welcome sanctuary within the park boundaries.
In the 1950s, though, a growing number of animals wandered out of the park in search of forage.
Part of the explanation was the loss of grazing habitat when the park boundaries were reduced in 1947. Then, in the mid-1950s, the park discontinued its spring burning program and meadows were gradually swallowed up by brush.
Outside the park, the elk would often feed on the crops of the local farmers. This damage was generally accepted with a certain degree of resignation — if only because the offending animals often ended up on the dinner table.
In 1959, however, the fall was unusually wet and crops were left standing in the fields over the winter. The temptation proved too much for the elk and they simply helped themselves. Farmers worried that they would have nothing to harvest in the spring.
N.L. Horley, the secretary of the Shellbrook Rural Municipality, complained about the crop loss to John Diefenbaker, the Conservative Member of Parliament for the area and prime minister since 1957, and suggested that local farmers be compensated. He also wondered if a fence could be erected along the southern park boundary to prevent a reoccurrence of the problem.
The Horley letter received immediate attention.
On Dec. 14, 1959, the executive assistant to the prime minister called on senior bureaucrats within the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources to deal with the matter “promptly and effectively.”
That same day, national parks officials decided that compensation would create a dangerous precedent and that the best way to stop elk depredation outside the park was to reduce the herd.
Ottawa immediately ordered the Prince Albert superintendent to organize the park wardens — they were going hunting. A press release insisted, “This program is intended to reduce the herds to the carrying capacity of the feed areas within that section of the park.”
The culling of the elk commenced on the morning of Dec. 16, 1959 — less than 48 hours after the prime minister’s office had demanded action.
Everyone involved on the ground described it as a slaughter. And slaughter it was. There was no limit on the number of elk to be shot, and all animals were considered expendable.
Three days after the killing had started, local residents, including farmers, asked that it be stopped. They did not believe that reducing the herd was a solution; they felt the problem would persist as long as elk could leave the park in search of food.
Ottawa officials remained convinced, however, that the shooting of the elk was “the only right course.”
By the time the shooting stopped, on March 6, 1960, the toll was 105 elk, including 25 yearling. Ninety per cent of the 60 adult females were pregnant. Local farmers who had been issued a special permit to hunt over the winter took a further 100 animals. When these figures are combined with the 210 animals shot during the regular fall hunting season in the district, a total of 415 elk were destroyed.
It was apparently not enough.
The cull continued the following winter. This time, though, only 22 animals were shot over a three-month period. The comments in the official report on the organized hunt were telling: “elk were very scattered and wild” and “large herds were not encountered.”
It was a numbing experience for the park wardens — one they never forgot.
One of the participants later reflected on the sorry affair at a wildlife management meeting. After wondering when the elk would recover, the warden bitterly observed, “it now appears to have been a monumental blunder … by someone completely ignorant of any conservation concepts.”
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:In December 1959, Prince Albert National Park embarked on an elk reduction program.
Credit: John Perret
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.