Wapiti Cervus canadensis

About this Pest

KEY CLUES

Distinctive features: Large deer. Light-coloured body contrasts strongly with dark-coloured legs, neck and head. Large creamy patch around rump and tail. Blackish, hairless muzzle. Large ears at an angle from the head. Males carry large round antlers that are cast off annually.

Size: Up to 1.5 m tall at the shoulder and 2.3 m in length. Males weigh up to 450 kg; females up to 270 kg, but animals often weigh significantly less.

Droppings: Hard, cylindrical pellets, black or dark brown, similar to other deer. Can be found aggregated in groups or scattered, or clumped together if moist.

Footprints: Cloven-hoofed with two moderately pointed toes. Resemble cattle prints more than red deer prints.

Kill signs: Not applicable (herbivore).

Vegetation damage: Primarily grazing on grasses, sedges and herbaceous plants but some browse on twigs and leaves of woody plants.

Eye shine: Silver blue but can also be dull green, yellow or white.

Distribution: Northern Fiordland in the southwest South Island. Fiordland ‘wapiti’ are a hybrid between wapiti (Cervus canadensis) and red deer (Cervus elaphus).

WHY ARE WAPITI PESTS?

Ecological impacts

The ‘wapiti’ (wapiti/red deer hybrid in Fiordland) is a pest because, at high numbers, they can damage many different indigenous plant species including grasses, sedges, ferns, shrubs and trees. At moderate densities they can eliminate highly palatable plant species from within their browsing height reach. Their feeding can affect a wide range of habitats from sea-level through montane to low-alpine areas over the area approximately 2,000 km 2 of their distribution. They have no natural predators in New Zealand. If unmanaged, their numbers will increase, resulting in more damage to vegetation in the remote valleys of Fiordland.

Other impacts

Historically, wild wapiti were infected by the tissue worm (Elaphostronglylus cervi), which was then apparently transferred to farmed deer, subsequently limiting exports to some countries. Bovine Tb (Mycobacterium bovis) has not been recorded in wild wapiti populations but it is assumed that they have a similar susceptibility and host status to that of red deer. Even if Tb occurred within the wild Fiordland herd, there are no nearby cattle farms that would be placed at risk. Overseas, wapiti damage seedlings and saplings in plantation forests, eat agricultural crops and break fences.

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Droppings

Separate

Wapiti produce droppings similar to those of red deer. The droppings are usually observed as groups of scattered pellets. When they are fresh, they have a moist appearance and are either black or dark brown but, over time, dry out and fade to a dull light brown colour. The size of pellets varies with age and season and, in Fiordland, the degree of hybridisation with red deer. The pellets of pure wapiti in North America are 11–17 mm in diameter and 13–25 mm long, slightly larger than those of red deer (13-18 mm diameter and 20-25 mm long). From a distance they look like small round balls but on closer examination are elongated and more pointed at one end.

Sometimes, when the pellets are moist, they adhere to each other forming a larger clumped dropping.

Can be confused with:

Wapiti droppings can be confused with droppings from other deer species. It will not be possible to reliably differentiate wapiti pellets from those of red deer in areas where their ranges overlap, with the possible exception of large-bodied, pure wapiti that have escaped from farms.

Clumped

Sometimes, when wapiti pellets are moist, they adhere to each other to form a larger dropping, which in summer may even look like small cow patties, particularly if they have been eating new grass and herbs. Usually, though, wapiti droppings are pellets found in groups of scattered pellets (see separate droppings section). Wapiti droppings closely resemble red deer droppings.

 Can be confused with:

Wapiti droppings can be confused with droppings from other deer species. It will not be possible to reliably differentiate wapiti pellets from those of red deer in areas where their ranges overlap, with the possible exception of large-bodied, pure wapiti that have escaped from farms.

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Footprints and Tracks

Hooves

Like all other species of deer, wapiti have cloven hooves, meaning each hoof is divided into two parts called toes or cleaves. The hoof of a pure-bred wapiti is larger than that of a red deer but smaller than that of cattle, and the toes are less pointed than in red deer. Wapiti hoof prints often look more like cattle prints than red deer prints but lack the large gap between the two toes that is obvious in cattle. Due to hybridisation between red deer and wapiti in Fiordland, the hoof prints may be hard to assign to a particular species as hoof shapes can vary and hoof sizes overlap.

Can be confused with:

Pure wapiti make larger footprints than any species of deer found in New Zealand. However, in New Zealand, particularly Fiordland, wapiti have hybridised with red deer. Consequently, it will be difficult to reliably differentiate wapiti hoof prints from those of red deer in most situations. Even if the print is characteristic of wapiti and subsequent identification of the animal showed it to be ‘wapiti-like’, genetic analysis may show the animal is primarily red deer. A print of a farm-escaped wapiti could potentially be confused with young cattle hoof footprints. They are unlikely to be confused with goat, sheep, or pig footprints because the ranges of these species do not overlap with wapiti except where there are farm-escapees and the prints of these species are much smaller than wapiti.

Trails and Runs

Like other deer, wapiti repeatedly use the same tracks and trails through the forest and up and down bluffs, so these routes can become well worn. If trails are recently used, fresh droppings will be seen along them and you may find hoof prints in damp soil. Some of the established tramping tracks in Fiordland are based on established deer trails, as the deer had already worked out the best way through rugged gorges and steep terrain. When tramping off-track you may also find yourself following deer trails. Wapiti are a tall species, so their trails may be relatively large and clear of vegetation compared with smaller ungulate species.

Can be confused with:

Wapiti trails can be confused with the trails of other deer species, especially those of red deer.

Wallows

Wapiti bulls form wet wallow holes during the few months before the rut (the breeding season). They roll around in these wallows and cover themselves with mud. Like red deer, they may repeatedly defecate and urinate in the wallow and use this mixture as a scent for attracting females.

Can be confused with:

Other species of deer and pigs also make use of wallows.

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Vegetation Damage

Understorey (less than 3m)

Fiordland wapiti feed on a wide variety of valley floor vegetation including trees, shrubs, lianes, trees, ferns, sedges and grasses. They will also feed on lichens, mosses and bark. In montane to low alpine areas just above treeline, they feed on snowgrass and a range of herbaceous and woody shrubland vegetation.

Dietary studies have revealed that wapiti favour broadleaf (Griselinia littoralis), kamahi (Weinmannia racemosa), sedges and lancewood (Pseudopanax crassifolius) where these species are present. The preference for eating particular plant species is known as selective browsing. Over time, this selective browsing can lead to the removal of these species from the forest, changing vegetation composition and leading to an increase in unpalatable ‘browse resistant’ species. Wapiti can reach higher branches than red deer can. Usually plants browsed by wapiti have a ragged or torn look. If there is limited pressure from helicopter hunters, wapiti will spend much of their time feeding on grasses and tussocks above treeline.

Can be confused with:

Wapiti browse and the effects it has on the condition and composition of the understorey can be confused with browse by other deer species, sheep, cows and goats.

Bark

Just before the rut (breeding season) in spring, male wapiti (bulls) will rub their antlers on bark or thrash them around in shrubs to help remove the dried velvet on the outside of their hardened antlers. This behaviour will often rub bark off a tree. Wapiti, like red deer, bite the bark off trees. It is not known why deer do this but it could be related to territorial marking. Both the biting and bark rubbing can kill individual trees, particularly if the tree is ring barked by the damage.

Can be confused with:

Bark rubbing or biting by wapiti can be mistaken for bark rubbing or biting by other species of deer, particularly red deer; or by goats; or tusking or possibly hide-rubbing by pigs. The height of the rubbing might help distinguish which species is responsible. Bite marks and antler rubbing will often leave characteristic marks, whereas hide-rubbing by pigs will not.

Plant leaves

Plants browsed by wapiti have a ragged or torn look and leaves may also have been bitten in half.

Can be confused with:

Wapiti browse is difficult to distinguish from other species of deer, and from goats, sheep or cows. Often the best way of determining which species has been browsing leaves in an area is through a process of elimination i.e. by determining which species inhabit the area, and looking for footprints and droppings.

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Kill Sign

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Other Clues

Smell

Wapiti have a distinctive musky smell that can be strong-smelling to humans when the animals are wet. Bulls also create a distinctive odour during the rut by urinating on themselves and wallowing in damp hollows containing faeces and urine.

Can be confused with:

The smell of wapiti can be confused with the smell of other deer species – especially red deer because wapiti and red deer cross-breed.

Sound

Wapiti make three types of sounds as follows: bleating of calves; bark of the female (cow); and rutting call of the bulls during the period of rut. The rutting call is a high-pitched, whistle-like bugle, rather than the red deer’s roar. The bugle or rut is when the bulls are most vocal, calling to attract the attention of cows. The bugle lasts from mid-March to late April.

Can be confused with:

Wapiti calf and cow calls could be confused with the calls of other deer species. A bugle is quite distinctive and should not be easily confused.

Body covering

Sometimes deer leave hair where they have been rubbing against a tree and on the ground in bedding areas. Pure-bred wapiti hair is coloured in various shades of fawn.

Can be confused with:

The fur of other deer species, especially red deer with which they have hybridised. There are also seasonal differences in the colour of coats.

Eye shine

When shining a torch at New Zealand wapiti eyes the eye shine can be a silver blue colour, but can also be dull green, yellow or white. The exact colour can depend on the brightness and angle of the light being shone.

Can be confused with:

Many deer species have silver coloured eye shine.

Distribution

In New Zealand, the wapiti is mainly found in northern Fiordland with its northern limit marked by a line between Sutherland Sound and Worsley Arm of Lake Te Anau and its southern limit marked by a line connecting Charles Sound and the Doon Valley. It is officially known as the Wapiti Area. Wapiti periodically escape from farms and these animals can exist as feral individuals or groups unless recovered by the farmer or shot.

Can be confused with:

All wapiti in the wapiti area are wapiti–red deer hybrids. Many escapees are also hybrids. These animals will usually have characteristics (especially size and colouration) that are intermediate of red deer and wapiti.

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MORE ABOUT WAPITI


Origin

Wapiti, or North American elk, were introduced to New Zealand from their native North America in 1905, when 18 animals of the Cervus elaphus nelsoni (now called Cervus canadensis nelsoni) variety were released at the head of George Sound, Fiordland and became quickly established. Ten of these animals were a gift from American President Theodore Roosevelt. Earlier introductions to other sites in New Zealand were unsuccessful. Captive-bred ‘wapiti’ on farms outside Fiordland also include introduced C. c. roosevelti and C. c. manitobensis.


Description

Wapiti are the largest deer in New Zealand (accepting that moose are no longer present in Fiordland). The male carries spectacularly large antlers that are round in cross-section. The current ‘wapiti’ population in Fiordland is a hybrid between wapiti (Cervus canadensis) and red deer (Cervus elaphus) though physical appearacne can vary. Animals that look typically like wapiti are distinctly larger in size than those that look typically like red deer. Features that are more like wapiti than red deer include a larger body; fur that is more fawn-coloured than reddish; and a large and distinct rump patch (around the tail). Wapiti antlers grow more up, out and backward whereas those of red deer grow up and inward; and wapiti antlers tend to have fewer points than red deer. Wapiti tend to have a calmer temperament compared to red deer.

In winter, wapiti are coloured yellowish to brownish grey with a blackish underbelly and dark chestnut brown head, neck and legs. Their winter fur is long and mature animals can have a neck mane. During summer, the body coat is shorter and more tawny, reddish or light bay in colour, and the legs dark. The rump patch is large, uniformly cream and bordered with dark brown year-round. New-born calves are tawny brown and some have a dark stripe along their spine. The rump patch on wapiti calves is yellowish brown and they have yellow spots like young red deer, though less distinct. The spots disappear at about two months of age. Wapiti have a blackish, hairless muzzle and large ears about half the length of the head, sticking out at an angle from the head.

The large antlers are cast (thrown off) annually by males (bulls). New antlers and the soft velvety covering, known as ‘velvet’, start to grow from approximately mid-August and growth is completed between late-January and mid-March. Males rub the fully grown hardened antlers on trees and other objects to get rid of the dried velvet. Antler size develops with age and and can be affected by nutrition: one-year-old males usually have a pair of unbranched spikes (tines); two-year-olds have four or eight tines; and mature males usually have at least 10 or 12 tines.

Size and weight

Males (bulls) can be up to 1.5 m tall at the shoulder and females (cows) up to 1.3 m. Overseas, bull wapiti can weigh up to 450 kg but New Zealand's free-ranging wapiti are generally smaller, weighing up to 260 kg.

Behaviour

Wapiti are social animals that feed in the early morning and late evening. They are inactive during the night and the middle of the day, when they mostly chew their cud (food regurgitated for a second chew). Wapiti behaviour and habitat use is similar to red deer and the two species mix and cross-breed freely. During spring, wapiti move out of the forest to more open sites to feed on new grass and shrub growth.

Breeding, known as the rut, occurs between mid-March and the end of April. During this time, males try to collect a group of females (known as a harem) and will defend them vigorously from other males. In spring, the two sexes separate; the females to give birth and the males to form their own separate bands. Calves are usually born from late November to mid December, usually as single calves but rarely as twins. For the first few days after birth the calves remain hidden but they begin following the mother around after about two weeks. They start eating vegetation after a month but the mother continues to suckle them for most of a year. Wapiti can live for 10-13 years.

Diet

Wapiti browse and graze a wide variety of vegetation that includes a range of grasses, herbs, shrubs, trees and other plants. Dietary studies in New Zealand found that 80% of the stomach contents comprised leaves and twigs, 15% sedges and grasses, with smaller amounts of bark lichens and mosses. The stomach contents of wapiti in forests, showed broadleaf (Griselinia littoralis) to be particularly favoured (25% of the diet), with lesser quantities of kamahi (Weinmannia racemosa), lancewood (Pseudopanax crassifolius), sedge species and small amounts of silver beech (Lophozonia menziesii). In their native range in North America, wapiti are primarily grazers and the amount of browse versus grazing forage in New Zealand is likely affected by the amount of hunting pressure from helicopters above the tree-line where they are more likely to be seen and shot.

Habitat

Free ranging wapiti in Fiordland occur from valley floor forest and grassland through to low alpine grassland/herbfield and shrubland. Wapiti like open hill tops, slips and clearings.

Other

In North America this species is known as elk. The name wapiti is from the Canadian Shawnee and Cree tribes’ word ‘waapiti’, meaning ‘white rump’.

Wapiti management

The Fiordland herd is the only free-range wapiti herd in the Southern Hemisphere. The Fiordland Wapiti Foundation and the Department of Conservation run a joint programme to manage deer in the Wapiti Area under a formal agreement. This programme aims to remove red deer-like animals from the herd, reduce the size of large female wapiti groups and cull an agreed number of deer in the area to ensure that environmental impacts are kept to acceptable levels. The programme has been successful for recreational hunters in that it has halted red deer dominance in the core of the wapiti area, producing deer that are increasingly wapiti-like in appearance, including with large antlers. Moreover, the recent annual off-take of 1000–1200 deer is maintaining the population well below carrying capacity (the number of deer the environment could hold) and this is keeping the impacts to the environment to agreed levels. Shooting has proven most effective in controlling wapiti.


FIND MORE INFORMATION IN:

Department of Conservation. Retrieved (2017) from http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/things-to-do/hunting/what-to-hunt/deer/wapiti-deer/

Nugent, G. (2005) Wapiti. In (C.M. King Ed.) New Zealand Handbook of Mammals, Second Edition, pp. 420-428. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.