Reintroduction one of national park’s options
By MATTHEW BENSON
Rocky Mountain National Park is considering the reintroduction of wolves, ranger-led hunting and other measures to control an elk population that has more than tripled since 1969. An estimated 3,000 elk now roam in the park during the summer months, and roughly 2,000 migrate down into the Estes Valley during winter. Their increased numbers have degraded willow and aspen stands needed by other wildlife and have led to property damage and safety concerns in Estes Park.
Few dispute the need to reduce the elk herd, said RMNP spokesman Larry Frederick, but there has been a wide range of opinions on how to do it. The National Park Service has presented six alternatives as part of its development of an elk management plan. Public feedback will be sought at four public forums later this month.
But the idea of reintroducing a pack of 14 to 20 gray wolves to the park is sparking vigorous debate. Livestock groups say ranching and wolves don’t mix.
“We’re absolutely opposed to the reintroduction of gray wolves. Unequivocally,” said Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association. “We’re not raising livestock to feed wolves.”
Reintroduction is “not even open for discussion,” she said, and the wool growers group wants a management plan implemented to reimburse ranchers for any wolves that migrate naturally to the state. There is a growing number of roughly 760 wolves in the three states north of Colorado.
“Wolves do indeed eat cows and sheep occasionally,” said Rob Edward, director of the carnivore restoration program for Sinapu, a Boulder-based environmental group. But if given the choice, he said, wolves prefer their natural prey.
It is expected that wolves reintroduced to RMNP would likely migrate beyond its borders, but Edward doesn’t anticipate significant livestock losses. That’s because a ready wolf food source — the elk herd — would be close at hand.
Any wolf reintroduction would likely come with a fund to reimburse livestock owners for any losses. Kline said such a fund hasn’t been effective in other states where, for every confirmed wolf kill, there are five to eight that are unconfirmed.
The fund, administered by Defenders of Wildlife, will likely be improved, Edward said. While he acknowledged the fund is imperfect, it makes ranchers a rare group that’s eligible for private reimbursement for losses suffered because of Mother Nature. For Edward, the issue boils down to this: Wolves are a natural part of the ecosystem and are needed to control the size and behavior of the elk herd.
“Because of the way wolves hunt, they keep elk on the move so they don’t spend so much time in one river bottom browsing everything down to the nub,” Edward said.
Frederick agreed that the loss of wolves, absent from the park since 1900, has played a role in the increase of the elk population.
In addition to wolf reintroduction, other options for elk management in RMNP include:
• No action.
• Culling roughly 300 cow elk in the park for each of the first four years of the plan, and 65 cow elk a year for the remaining 16 years.
• Fertility control to reduce the size of the herd to a targeted level of 1,600 to 2,100 during summer. Fencing also would be used to protect vegetation.
• Led by Park Service staff or contracted guides, members of the public who qualify as marksmen would remove 70 cow elk a year for 20 years. Limited herding, fencing and hazing through rubber bullets and other means would be used to further control the herd.
• A combination of culling and fertility control. Under this option, a large number of elk would be culled in the first five years to reduce the herd. Contraception then would be used to maintain the herd size, with additional culling as necessary.
Edward called those options the “head-in-the-sand proposals,” noting that past culling operations have proved ineffective.
“The only ecologically justifiable proposal is to reintroduce wolves to the landscape,” he said. “Wolves are an important part of the southern Rocky Mountains web of life and should be restored to as many places as possible.”
Frederick stressed that RMNP officials aren’t taking a position on the six elk options at this point. After public input is received, they hope to finalize a management plan by winter 2005-06.
“We’re trying to do this very carefully and thoughtfully. We’re not rushing this,” he said. “At the same time, the herd continues to grow.”