Every autumn, seasoned members of Kwakwak'awakw nation gather their young hunters.
They melt into the forests near Campbell River and Sayward to track and kill the resident Roosevelt elk — at more than 1,000 pounds, the world’s second-largest deer. They carefully record their catch and any other observations, then arrange for the butchering.
Around Christmas time the young hunters reconvene, load up the meat and hand-deliver packages to the community’s elders.
It is a lesson in self-sustenance and providing for the community that was not possible a few decades ago when the north Island tribe was restricted to hunting only six elk a year.
Last fall, tribe members took 101 because the resurgent elk population allowed for it.
That population is a testament to a new approach to conservation and co-operation that has seen elk herds growing across Vancouver Island. Some are pointing to it as what should become a template for other British Columbia wildlife management practices.
“The state of the herds is fantastic. They are doing very, very well,” John Henderson said. “We have developed a management plan where everybody benefits.”
“The numbers have gone up. It’s a positive in a province where wildlife numbers are suffering,” Glenn Venus agreed. “I believe the government is doing a good job on our elk. It’s a real win/win. We’ve got a real good relationship with the First Nations and it’s all managed very well.”
Henderson is First Nations, the vice-chairman of, and wildlife officer for, the Kwakiutl District Council. Venus is not First Nations. He operates a hunting lodge and guiding operation called TrophyWest from his acreage near Sayward.
Historically, such men have butted heads in competition over hunting access. Today, they work together as president and secretary, respectively, of the Wildlife Stewardship Council, a coalition of hunting guides and First Nations that takes great pride in the elk success story.
Henderson said the first step in the relationship was the recognition that the health of the animal comes first. That means growing, self-sustainable herds take precedence over any harvest.
“Back then we were at odds with each other, arguing over rights and title and formulas,” he said. “Nobody was speaking for the animal. We speak for the animal.”
Then came rough agreement that any harvest should be split equally between First Nations and non-First Nations hunters. And to avoid the jealously and finger-pointing that had previously jaundiced such accords, the hunters pledged to keep a thorough and scrupulous accounting of how many elk there are and how many are actually taken.
“The only way we can establish a trust relationship is having the numbers,” Henderson said. “Our people have managed it in a way that respects the animal and so we had sustenance. Our people have established themselves as responsible hunters.”
The numbers seem to bear that out.
You may mostly hear about Roosevelt elk in the news because of the too-frequent poaching incidents that shake Vancouver Island herds from time to time. But the fact of the matter is Island population trends for this majestic beast are clearly positive. According to a Ministry of Forests management plan released in July of 2014, the number of Vancouver Island elk has more than doubled in less than 30 years — from 2,500 animals in 1986 to 5,300 in 2014. Ministry officials say that number has reached 5,500 today.
Ranging throughout most of Vancouver Island, and most plentiful in the areas west of Campbell River, Cowichan and Nanaimo, herds are stable or increasing in all but three of the more than 150 subregions in the area, including the Sunshine Coast.
The elk are native to the Island, but saw their numbers decimated during a century of colonial practices. Populations are secure enough now in some areas that they are being transplanted to re-establish herds in habitat areas where they had disappeared.
Despite these gains, the animal remains on the provincial Blue List, meaning it is considered at-risk because of characteristics that make it particularly sensitive or vulnerable to human activities and natural events.
“Elk can be highly susceptible to harsh winters and high levels of predation and/or unregulated hunting. This is especially true of small populations that are less resilient, which can be very slow to recover,” Ministry of Forests Public Affairs officer Greig Bethel said in an email.
The two dead cows — one pregnant — discovered poached west of Sooke in February is an example of that. They were part of a fledgling herd that had recently established a foothold in that area. Conservation officers say that herd is small enough that the loss of even two cows could render it unsustainable.
Conservation officer Scott Norris said elk poaching is a problem that comes and goes in spurts. He said his office depends on hunters and other wilderness users to monitor what they see and do their part to help keep poachers in check. He said most are highly motivated to see herds grow and poaching stop.
“Most hunters are never going to get a chance to get an elk,” he said. “Of course (poaching) gets them upset.”
According to the government, it receives about 15,000 applications annually from resident hunters for approximately 300 opportunities to shoot an elk. Those opportunities are awarded by giving out tags for limited entry hunts using a lottery system.
First Nations hunters are given about the same number of opportunities, but they are distributed to a variety of bands, which redistribute them using a variety of different systems.
Henderson is urging other bands to adopt the same principles and scrupulous reporting practices used by the Kwakiutl District Council. He said they promote conservation attitudes within band memberships and the transparency encourages better relationships with the non-Native hunting community. He said everybody needs to be part of the process.
“Right now I am going around the province sharing my knowledge and my beliefs,” he said. “It’s the responsible thing to do at the end of the day. If I can educate the young people then I have done my part.
The goal for the species — as stated in the provincial management plan — is to maintain self-sustaining populations, expand its traditional range and to get it off the Blue List by 2024. Clear progress has been made on the first and second goals, while the third also appears to be in sight.
Venus preaches continued slow and steady progress along the path that has already been established.
“We are doing well, the numbers are growing, but I don’t want to do anything silly. It happens in other parts of the province and we don’t want that,” he said.
“As long as the health of the herds is there, I think that is the most important thing.
“The elk is a very special animal.”