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Grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars/ mountain lions,bobcats, wolverines, lynx, foxes, fishers and martens are the suite of carnivores that originally inhabited North America after the Pleistocene extinctions. This site invites research, commentary, point/counterpoint on that suite of native animals (predator and prey) that inhabited The Americas circa 1500-at the initial point of European exploration and subsequent colonization. Landscape ecology, journal accounts of explorers and frontiersmen, genetic evaluations of museum animals, peer reviewed 20th and 21st century research on various aspects of our "Wild America" as well as subjective commentary from expert and layman alike. All of the above being revealed and discussed with the underlying goal of one day seeing our Continent rewilded.....Where big enough swaths of open space exist with connective corridors to other large forest, meadow, mountain, valley, prairie, desert and chaparral wildlands.....Thereby enabling all of our historic fauna, including man, to live in a sustainable and healthy environment. - Blogger Rick

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Monday, February 27, 2012

An Elk personality study is underway in Jasper and Banff National Parks with the goal of finding a way to keep Elk from becoming habituated to us humans..........University of Alberta biologist Rob Found is of the school of thought that suggests that intelligence is best measured by behaviour rather than the way an animal looks or seems to be..........He hopes that with the information gleaned through this study, wildlife managers will be able to focus their efforts on the particular stimuli and the particular animals with the greatest potential to reduce rates of human-wildlife conflict.......... Ultimately, this will make it possible for humans and other animals to share space with greater harmony, reducing threats to human safety and the need for lethal management of so-called problem wildlife

The elk shrink: With parks under siege, one researcher tries to unravel ungulate personalities

 By Ed Struzik, Postmedia 
University of Alberta biologist Rob Found is conducting a study to determine the personality of elk in Jasper National Park. The idea that elk and other wild animals have personalities is often dismissed as silly anthropomorphism, which is not all that surprising when you consider the science of human personality is just a little over a century old and still fraught with theological, sociological and evolutionary debates.
 University of Alberta biologist Rob Found is conducting a study to determine the personality of elk in Jasper National Park. The idea that elk and other wild animals have personalities is often dismissed as silly anthropomorphism, which is not all that surprising when you consider the science of human personality is just a little over a century old and still fraught with theological, sociological and evolutionary debates.
JASPER NATIONAL PARK, Alta. — University of Alberta biologist Rob Found is in the middle of the forest in Jasper National Park, building something that looks like a performance arts stage.
Inside a crude corral that has been decoratively taped with red ribbon, he carefully places a bright orange traffic triangle and a shiny yellow bicycle frame on top of a wood cage containing alfalfa.
Off the beaten track as we are, it is unlikely that skiers will come by and admire this novel object. But just in case they do, Found staples a notice on the corral post asking people not to disturb anything if happenstance and curiosity tempt them. It is wild elk that he is hoping to attract to this work of art, not people.
Crazy as it sounds and looks to be, a purpose is being served by this madness.

With the help of a motion-sensing camera strapped to a tree nearby, Found is trying to determine how elk will respond when they stumble upon a novel object such as this one. Will they be shy, as some were when he tossed a ball at them in earlier experiments on an elk farm near Edmonton? Or will they throw caution to the wind and play like children, as others have done when he's introduced them to balloons.

The reaction might say something about the personality that Found is trying to identify in each of the animals he is tracking here in Jasper and in Banff national parks. It might also help Parks Canada find a way of preventing elk from becoming habituated to humans, as they have in the Rocky Mountain parks.
"I know it sounds crazy, and I can tell you that some of my colleagues in science can be a bit dismissive when I tell them what I am doing," says Found. "But apart from trying to figure out the personality of elk, there is potentially a management application we could learn to use from this study."In many ways, elk are like people. If can we figure out what makes them tick, we may be able to manage them more effectively."

The idea that elk and other wild animals have personalities is often dismissed as silly anthropomorphism, which is not all that surprising when you consider the science of human personality is just a little over a century old and still fraught with theological, sociological and evolutionary debates.

Is it genetics or nurturing that makes some of us easygoing and others high-strung? Does environment play a role in determining why some people are perky in the dark days of winter while others are vulnerable to depression?

Ask a pet owner and you're not likely to get any argument about where dogs fit into the personality debate. Golden retrievers, they will tell you, are almost without exception, loyal, highly energetic and playful. Some poorly trained Rottweilers, on the other hand, have hair-trigger temperaments that cause them to attack when surprised or provoked. Both breeds, they would argue, get depressed if they are not treated properly.
But does a wild animal such as an elk, which has not undergone generations of breeding to get the personality traits that humans are looking for, have a personality? Or is what we see as traits of intelligence that make up personality simply the reflex response that scientist Ivan Pavlov famously saw in his dog?

The idea that animals have personalities has been growing in leaps and bounds in scientific circles since University of Lethbridge psychologist Jennifer Mather and others started gently poking, startling, feeding and playing with East Pacific Red Octopus more than 20 years ago to see what kind of response they would get. In several scientific journals, she and her colleagues have made the case that the octopus, an animal once labelled as "stupid" by Aristotle, can combine perception with memory to figure out what's happening at the moment.

The key, of course, is how you define or measure the intelligence that is responsible for animal personality. "Stupid is as stupid does," as Forrest Gump would say, suggests that true intelligence is best measured by behaviour rather than the way a person or an animal like the octopus looks or seems to be.
"Animals like elk may not be intelligent in the way we are," says Found. "There is no IQ test we can give them. But they can process complex information and, based on what I've seen in the field, they are not so different from humans."

Found didn't get any argument when he approached elk rancher Herman Bulten to see if he could try some personality-testing strategies on his fenced-in animals before approaching Parks Canada with his plan.
Rather than slamming down the phone, as Found had half-expected when he told him he would be chasing some of them around with hockey sticks, Bulten wanted to hear more.

"Oh yes, elk have personalities," he says. "No doubt about it. I have seen it in the animals I raise."
Bulten's favourite way of illustrating this concerns an elk he never owned. This "bottle baby" was the unfortunate offspring of a mother who ended up choosing to feed his twin brother instead of him.
Too busy to bottle-feed the calf, the owner asked Bulten if he would like to give it a try. "Bozo" as he came to be called, was a handful. But he eventually got so attached to Bulten, his wife, Alice, and his son Brendan that they could count on him to lead other more reticent elk into the barn. All he wanted to get out of it was a reward.

"I could call Bozo's name and he would come running," he says. "The key with him and other elk is that you have to recognize that they have personalities and they need to be treated with respect. It's the same philosophy that the horse-whisperer uses in dealing with so-called problem horses. Bozo would respond positively to my body language, for example, but if you used a quad to try and chase him into the barn, as some elk ranchers did, he would not co-operate."

Bozo was returned to the owner, and was then sold and resold to other ranchers who weren't as patient or empathetic as he was. Like Black Beauty, the fictional colt who descended into despair after he was passed from one cruel owner to another, Bozo became an outcast.

"They thought he was troublemaker," says Bulten. "They didn't understand him,"
Bulten lost track of Bozo. But then one day, when he was visiting a colleague who had recently acquired a bunch of new animals, he had a flashback."Out of curiosity, I asked him if he had an animal with the No. 77 tag in its ear," said Bulten. "That was Bozo's identification number."

"'Oh that one,' the owner said to me. 'I'm getting rid of it. Too much trouble. It can't be handled.' "
Bulten called out Bozo's name to see if he might remember him after all these years. To his delight, and the disbelief of the owner, the animal pricked up its ears and ran across the field towards him.
"He came right up and started licking my face. He couldn't have been happier to see me."

Bulten has owned many other animals that have exhibited the kind of unique personality traits that Found is trying to identify. One particularly affectionate female was so annoyed with him when he gave her a gentle cuff on the snout to get her to back off, she would abruptly turn her rump towards him whenever he tried to approach her afterwards. It took a year for her to forgive him. Another was so distraught when she lost her calf to illness that she went into a deep depression and wouldn't eat for four days. "When you see that kind of behaviour, you can't help wonder if they really are much different than us," Bulten says.

Parks Canada is interested in what Found is doing because elk have become a huge management problem in Jasper and Banff since they were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park between 1917 and 1920.
In the past 30 years, more than 600 people have reported being attacked or chased by ornery elk in those mountain parks. Thirty-six of them had to be treated for serious injuries.

Elk also attract wolves and cougars, which can be a problem when such prey species spend a good part of their time in schoolyards, parks and green spaces along the perimeters of town.Several years ago, Parks Canada tried to deal with this problem by identifying and relocating some of the more troublesome animals away from the townsite. Fifty elk were shipped to the Swan Hills area, 40 to the wildlands around Nordegg, and 10 more to a remote region of the park.

The transplanted elk weren't interested in giving up the good life in town, where there was plenty of food and relatively few predators to worry about. Thirteen of the 50 animals that were transported to Swan Hills quickly decided they'd had enough of the wilderness when they heard the sound of a train heading toward the lights of the town centre, just as trains do when they pass through Jasper. The next day the animals were found huddled up in a schoolyard, munching happily on grass they had dug up beneath the snow. In the end, almost every one of the transplanted animals moved back to the urban life they were taken from.
Nowadays, Parks Canada deals with the elk in Banff and Jasper townsites by sending wildlife conflict specialists out with hockey sticks every morning to drive them off.

"It works and doesn't work," Parks Canada's Mike Dillon told me when I joined him on the early morning patrol in Jasper this winter. "They come to recognize our trucks and our uniforms. As soon as one of the dominant animals see us coming or hears the sound of the truck door open, it heads out of town and the rest follow. By morning, they're all back again.
Entering university in his mid-thirties, Found wasn't exactly green when he got into this field of study.
The seed of interest got planted several years earlier when his sister was studying wolf and coyote movements in Jasper. Found was working as a bellman and kitchen helper at the time when he offered himself up as cheap labour.

"Though she paid me little, sometimes I couldn't believe I was getting paid at all, like when we left a carcass site, returned to the car, and we got surrounded by coyotes," he said. "I wouldn't say this exactly inspired me to a career in biology, because I had hated school since I was five years old and university seemed a stupid thing for me to do, but this did plant the seed."

The decision to go to university evolved serendipitously from a flippant remark Found made to a fellow hotel kitchen employee who had worked and partied to the point of becoming borderline alcoholic.
"I actually quite liked him and we joked a lot," he recalls. "But then one day, when I was explaining my system for keeping organized while serving in the restaurant, he scoffed and told me that he thought it was excessively complicated. I joked, and said, 'Well, I don't like to take the easy way out.'""I'll never forget his response. 'You're working here,' he said. 'You're already taking the easy way out.'"I realized right then and there that he was right and that I could easily end up like him if I didn't take a chance in my life."

Working first with scientist Mark Boyce, who likes to throw his new students into the cold, deep end of the pool, Found went on to do his PhD with Colleen Cassidy St. Clair, who tends to give students life jackets before sending them off into the field. That ying and yang experience in academia put him on a new career trajectory. Several important research grants followed and, in 2010, Found received the prestigious E.O. Wilson award for student research.

St. Clair has no doubt that understanding animal personality has the potential to help people manage wild animals."Any personnel manager would agree that recognizing and accommodating different personality types is essential for avoiding conflict in the workplace," she points out."Yet wildlife managers haven't applied this concept to the problem of human-wildlife conflict at all, probably because it seems hopeless to identify personality in wild animals. Rob's work has shown that it's not nearly as difficult as one might think. He can tell you which elk are inherently bold versus shy and which ones are set in their ways, which psychologists would call proactive versus reactive.

"With this information, managers will be able to focus their efforts on the particular stimuli and the particular animals with the greatest potential to reduce rates of human-wildlife conflict in future. Ultimately, this approach will make it possible for humans and other animals to share space with greater harmony, reducing threats to human safety and the need for lethal management of so-called problem wildlife."
St. Clair isn't entirely right.

In the town of Churchill, the government of Manitoba has developed a unique, world-class wildlife management protocol that uses personality assessment, among other strategies, to deal with hundreds of polar bears that stray precariously close to town in the fall months while waiting for the ice to freeze up in Hudson Bay.

The strategies have succeeded beyond everyone's expectation.
Thirty years ago, conservation officers stationed there routinely tranquillized or shot polar bears that got too close. But through trial and observation, they learned that most of these animals weren't interested in causing trouble. Given a chance, a majority could be easily escorted away with a truck or bear bangers. As a consequence, fewer bears are now shot or immobilized and less damage is done to homes and businesses. Remarkably only one person has been killed by a polar bear in Churchill in the last 40 years.

That doesn't mean that all polar bears can be easily deterred. Every once in a while, conservation officers encounter an extremely aggressive polar bear that isn't interested in gentle persuasion. Usually, it's a big male that isn't used to being pushed around.

Last summer one particularly ornery animal attacked a conservation officer's truck and left a huge dent on the hood before running off into town. In the end, officers had no choice but to destroy it.
Edmonton-based Environment Canada scientist Nick Lunn suspected something like this might happen when he caught and tagged the same bear on land in the western Hudson Bay region in 2004, 2005 and 2007.
The bear was so aggressive — charging and jumping at the helicopter during the immobilization process — that Lunn took the unusual step of recording its behaviour in his field notes. "I remember this bear and made the comment that if I ever came close to people — researchers on the land or near town — that there could be trouble."

Found has had his own share of close calls chasing elk around with hockey sticks to measure flight response times. "In my first week in Jasper, three elk charged me," he recalls. "One time I had to jump behind a comically small pine tree that both me and the elk could look over. She basically chased me around this little tree for 10 to 15 seconds before she got bored, and I got irritated, and we went our separate ways."
Surprisingly, tourists and residents of Jasper don't seem so surprised when they see Found and his technicians chasing elk with hockey sticks to see how aversive conditioning affects their behaviour.
"I think people are surprisingly un-puzzled by the concept of studying personality in elk, particularly locals who certainly have more first-hand experience with the animals," he says. "Every day they wake up to see the sight of wardens hazing elk in order to get them out of town."

Not everyone is as co-operative as Found would like them to be, however.
Flipping through the camera photos one day, he watched with fascination as a young Japanese couple stumbled upon one of his novel objects — several boxes stacked on top of one another in this particular case.

One by one the couple took the boxes down and arranged them so they could be used as a table and chair. Then they sat down and casually ate their lunch."At first, I thought, they're destroying my experiment. But then as I was sorting through the photos, I was relieved to see that once they finished their lunch they carefully restacked the boxes just as they had found them and left."

Early as he is in his research, Found is reluctant to say too much about what he has discovered so far. But there is little doubt in his mind that the animals he is dealing with are intelligent and possess problem-solving skills. "In Banff, Parks Canada uses cattle guards and rail fences in wildlife crossings in order to keep the elk on the north side of the Trans Canada Highway, where there are more predators," he says.
"Elk can enjoy the north side. But once they start feeling the predator pressure, they make the decision to get back to the safe, south side of the highway. To do this they have been known to walk all the way from Banff to Canmore (some 25 kilometres) to get around the fence, then come all the way back to Banff to their preferred grazing grounds."

There are some things about elk that Found still finds strange; the first involves their occasionally walking around on their hind legs to get at the low-hanging branches of a tree. "It just doesn't look normal," he says.
The second relates to some of them getting down on their front knees and crawling around to graze. While they use this posture to nurse, Found can't think of any reason why they would have do it when grazing as adults.

That said, Found has seen humans acting even more strangely. He includes himself in that category.
"I regularly climb into garbage Dumpsters looking for things that elk will find interesting, but rather than being puzzled at the methods behind my elk behaviour project, people who see me seem to just pity the poor homeless man they think they see."

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