As Female Elk Age, They Become Practically Impossible to Hunt
A young cow. Image: Mark Boyce


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As Female Elk Age, They Become Practically Impossible to Hunt

These elk can learn.

As female elk get older, they become almost impossible to hunt, nay bulletproof, and there is literally nothing more metal than that.

A new study coming out of the University of Alberta, published today in PLOS ONE, found that by the time these females reach the age of 10, they get better at avoiding hunters. The same effect was not seen in males, but that's probably because it's rare for bulls to live for more than four years, so there's not a lot of data to go off of. (Elk can live up to 20 years.)


GIF: Lisa Cumming

Lead author Mark Boyce, a conservation biologist, suggests that learning plays a big part in how older female elk evade hunters, because the response isn't genetic. Elk that survive each hunting season are more skilled at avoiding hunters in the next season.

In the late 1800s, elk were completely wiped out in Ontario due to overhunting and habitat loss. At the same time in western Canada, elk were also facing depletion. Now, elk populations are sustainable again and elk hunting is allowed.

According to this new paper, female elk evade hunters by learning to become shyer as they age, which means not covering as much ground, and seeking out safer areas, like forests with a lot of tree cover and harder terrain where hunters are less likely to pass through.

While these behaviour adjustments don't have anything to do with protecting the young, Boyce said, they inevitably help the female elk in parenting anyway, because the females stay alive.

"Learning to avoid hunters increases survival for mature cows," Boyce wrote in an email. "They are important because they are better mothers."

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Boyce and two other researchers studied elk from 2007 to 2012 in an area of southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia. They used radio collars and recorded the movements and behaviour of elk across seven hunting seasons. According to Boyce, understanding this will help future wildlife management and conservation strategies.


Elk in Yellowstone. Image: Don Graham/Flickr

"Having [female elk] in the population enhances population resilience," he wrote. "Mature cows remember migration routes, location of food sources and how to avoid hunters and poachers."

Boyce isn't worried about hunters depleting the male elk population, even though he didn't see the same effect there.

"Hunting reduces numbers but the learning improves the chances that there will be survivors," he wrote. "Those that survive do better because of reduced competition and more forage."

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