Option floated to trim number of elk
By KEVIN DARST
Wolves are on the short list of options to control Rocky Mountain National Park’s bulging elk herd, according to a park newsletter.
The predators, which would be tracked with collars outfitted with global positioning system technology, would be confined to the park. Wolves that wander out of the park would be captured and returned, said Carlie Ronca, a natural resource management specialist at the park.
“We’re going to commit to restricting their movement,” Ronca said.
Park managers say the park’s 3,000 elk are destroying winter-range aspen and willow stands. They want to reduce the herd to 1,200 from 2,100.
Public hunting and moving some elk to other locations won’t get further consideration, according to a park newsletter.
Birth control and fencing elk out of certain areas could be used along with culling, but they won’t be used on their own to control the park’s elk population, according to the newsletter, though culling alone is an option.
Park managers plan to announce their preferred alternative sometime this winter, with a decision sometime after that.
Under the wolf option, park managers would use a “small population” of gray wolves, along with culling, to control elk numbers. If wolves prove effective, they’d be allowed to increase over time.
A local wildlife advocate praised the park’s decision to include the wolf option. If it chooses that plan, Gary Wockner said the park should study the wolves’ effect on ecosystem restoration and chronic wasting disease, a fatal illness that targets deer and elk.
“I think it’s an extraordinary scientific opportunity for the park to see if wolves can perform the same kind of magic that wolves in Yellowstone did,” said Gary Wockner, a member of the state’s wolf working group. The group is studying ways to manage wolves that migrate into Colorado.
The park won’t examine the possibility of a free-roaming wolf pack, something that could disappoint some wildlife conservationists.
“We want to see wolves functioning across the landscape as an ecological process just like fire,” said Rob Edward, director of carnivore restoration for Sinapu, a Boulder-based organization whose name is Ute for wolf.
“We definitely have to look at that carefully,” Edward said. “It’s certainly not wolf restoration within the frames that the conservation community is ultimately seeking for the southern Rockies.”
Some aren’t so sure the park will be able to keep wolves within its boundaries.
David Mech, one of the nation’s leading authorities on wolves, said an abundant supply of food – elk – wouldn’t be enough to keep the predators in park boundaries.
“Even when food is abundant, wolves tend to travel a great deal,” Mech said in an e-mail Wednesday. “They seem always to be looking for new opportunities. And, of course, if prey migrates, the wolves must follow.”
Wockner also wants to see wolves roam free in the state, but the park’s plan could be a good first step, he said.
“I have been advocating for free-roaming wolves in all suitable habitat in Colorado, including Rocky Mountain National Park,” Wockner said. “Until then, I think this alternative is a careful, mature proposal that will begin the restoration.”