The province is investigating the killing of 12 elk about a week ago near Swan River -- the dead animals were lined up and photographed for posts on Facebook and YouTube -- to see if the hunters shot the animals on private land without permission.
Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship officials are also concerned the elk may have been baited with shared feed put out to lure them to the kill -- which raises the risk of diseases like chronic wasting disease or bovine tuberculosis being passed to healthy animals.
Baiting elk in Manitoba's chronic wasting disease and tuberculosis protection zones is prohibited for all hunters.
The shooting of the dozen elk in one day also touched off a debate with racial overtones on social media about First Nations and Métis subsistence hunting rights and the need for the Manitoba government to bring in tougher hunting restrictions for elk, which are under pressure from harvesters with the continuing ban on moose hunting in some parts of the province.
"Since old Bullwinkle walked across the Bering land bridge thousands of years ago, he hasn't changed at all," said Vince Crichton, Manitoba Conservation's now-retired manager of game, fur and problem wildlife. Crichton is now a private consultant.
"But look at what we have today in terms of cars, trucks and snow machines. We all have better access. They are now more vulnerable than they've ever been in the past. We can't continue to harvest the way we have and expect the resource to be there for future generations."
Crichton and others said the province, with the help of First Nations and Métis people, has to set new rules on when and where male and female elk and moose can be hunted, and then limit how many can be harvested each year. The Selinger government extended hunting rights to Métis last fall.
"We have to get on the same page," Crichton said. "Elk are going to be in the same position of moose in the not-too-distant future."
A provincial spokesman said Wednesday licensed elk hunting is only permitted in Manitoba through a draw, which provides 1,700 tags each year. First Nations hunters are not generally subject to seasons or bag limits, but are subject to special restrictions such as moose-hunting bans in the Duck and Porcupine Mountain areas imposed in July 2011.
Officials are also trying to determine how many hunters were involved in the elk kill and how many families were to get meat.
If elk are harvested in violation of provincial regulations, penalties could include a fine of as much as $10,000 or imprisonment for a term of as long as six months, or both, for each person found guilty.
The Facebook page showing the dead animals has been deleted, but the cellphone video is still posted.
Riley Flett, who took the videos and photos, said he took down his Facebook page when the comments became too inflammatory. Someone else recorded the video, posted it on YouTube and it is out of his control.
Rick Wowchuk and David Minish of conservation group Moose for Tomorrow said the province has to do more to protect elk numbers, such as banning the hunting of pregnant cows, due to the increased pressure on the species.
"With us having hunting seasons that are targeting the reproductive sector it's not saying too much about sustainable management," Wowchuk said. There are an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 head of elk in the Duck Mountain area.
Minish said there were only 10 tags drawn for 20 hunters in the Porcupine Mountains before Christmas.
"But in one afternoon a dozen animals were taken elsewhere," Minish said. "What it amounts to is when the province goes to set up its management plan, it become increasingly obvious that they cannot manage wildlife.
"This isn't about one colour against the other -- this about a situation that makes a resource unmanageable and no one wants to grapple with it."
Minish added Moose for Tomorrow is to meet with Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh on the issue in Swan River later this month.