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After seven years of studying the movements and behaviours of female elk, University of Alberta researchers discovered they become “virtually bulletproof” as they age.

“Elk learn to become shy as they get older,” said University of Alberta biologist Mark Boyce. “They hunker down in the deep forest and stay in rugged terrain. Those types of behaviours were very effective (for survival) in heavily hunted areas.”

Boyce and two former post-doctoral fellows used radio collars fitted with GPS technology to track elk in southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia between 2007 and 2012.

In their study, published Wednesday, they found female elk learned behaviours that helped them better avoid hunters with each hunting season.

“The bold elk move the most, are the most aggressive and will bolt out into the open. Those elk died at a high rate.” said Boyce. “As they age, they tend to become shy, more savvy, learn to avoid roads.”

While some elk started out shy, most learned to adopt the shy behaviours.

“The magic number is 10,” said Boyce. “After this age threshold, female elk become almost bulletproof, virtually invulnerable to hunting.”

In addition to gaining a better understanding of elk behaviour, Boyce said the study shows that wildlife management and conservation strategies are working.

“We’ve been very effective,” said Boyce. “Elk in North America were almost extirpated 100 years ago and now they are abundant.”

One of the elk in Boyce’s study was 23 years old, while many of the other females lived to about age 20.

Male elk tend to live for only four or five years in Alberta because of their bold behaviour and hunters’ preference for bull elk, Boyce said. Their short lifespans meant they were not part of the study.

The study, titled Learning From the Mistakes of Others: How Female Elk Adjust Behaviour with Age to Avoid Hunters, was published in PLOS One on June 14.

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