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Predator-Resembling Aversive Conditioning for Managing Habituated Wildlife

Elsabé Louise Kloppers, University of Alberta
Colleen Cassady St. Clair, University of Alberta
Thomas Eric Hurd, Banff National Park

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Abstract

Wildlife habituation near urban centers can disrupt natural ecological processes, destroy habitat, and threaten public safety. Consequently, management of habituated animals is typically invasive and often includes translocation of these animals to remote areas and sometimes even their destruction. Techniques to prevent or reverse habituation and other forms of in situ management are necessary to balance ecological and social requirements, but they have received very little experimental attention to date. This study compared the efficacy of two aversive conditioning treatments that used either humans or dogs to create sequences resembling chases by predators, which, along with a control category, were repeatedly and individually applied to 24 moderately habituated, radio-collared elk in Banff National Park during the winter of 2001–2002. Three response variables were measured before and after treatment. Relative to untreated animals, the distance at which elk fled from approaching humans, i.e., the flight response distance, increased following both human and dog treatments, but there was no difference between the two treatments. The proportion of time spent in vigilance postures decreased for all treatment groups, without differences among groups, suggesting that this behavior responded mainly to seasonal effects. The average distance between elk locations and the town boundary, measured once daily by telemetry, significantly increased for human-conditioned elk. One of the co-variates we measured, wolf activity, exerted counteracting effects on conditioning effects; flight response distances and proximity to the town site were both lower when wolf activity was high. This research demonstrates that it is possible to temporarily modify aspects of the behavior of moderately habituated elk using aversive conditioning, suggests a method for reducing habituation in the first place, and provides a solution for Banff and other jurisdictions to manage hyperabundant and habituated urban wildlife.

Key words

Banff National Park; Canada; Cervus elaphus; behavior; aversive conditioning; dogs; predation; chase sequence; habituation; urban wildlife;
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087