Elk in the cross hairs

Sharpshooters eyed as way to manage population in park

By Deborah Frazier, Rocky Mountain News

Sharpshooters would kill as many as 1,800 of Rocky Mountain National Park’s estimated 3,000 elk under a plan favored by park biologists.

The herds have tripled in size, from about 1,000 animals in 1990, and have severely overgrazed the park, said Therese Johnson, a park biologist who headed the elk-control study.

Hunting is prohibited within park boundaries and the elk have no natural predators, she said.

The park and its expanding elk population span the Continental Divide between Estes Park and Grand Lake. Most of the elk winter east of the park, roaming as far away as Loveland.

The two-year study by park biologists offered five alternatives: dramatic use of sharpshooters to reduce the herds by 50 percent or more; no management; fertility control; limited use of sharpshooters; and the reintroduction of wolves.

Under the option favored by the researchers, sharpshooters from the park service, other government agencies and private contractors would remove 200 to 700 elk a year for four years.

For the next 16 years, shooters would cull 25 to 160 elk each year, Johnson said. The herds would be kept at 1,200 to 1,700 animals.

“We recognize the problem in Rocky Mountain National Park,” said Mark Armstrong of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates scientific management of elk.

“We know that some of the best minds in wildlife biology have been working on a solution for years,” he said.

In the 1960s, sharpshooters were used to control elk in several national parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park, Johnson said.

Sharpshooters are now used to reduce mule-deer populations in eastern parks and wild pigs in Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, she said.

The preferred sharpshooter alternative would also redistribute elk more evenly in the popular park, and a related proposal would build fences around 545 acres of aspen groves, Johnson said.

Wolves might be used if the sharpshooters and redistribution aren’t effective and if other agencies agree, Johnson said.

She said the wolves would be intensively managed, and animals that cause problems outside the park could be shot or trapped.

The state and groups representing ranchers and farmers oppose wolf reintroduction in Colorado.

Sinapu, a nonprofit group that wants wolves reintroduced in Colorado, said that intensively managed wolves won’t help the park’s burgeoning elk numbers.

“Wolves need to act naturally, and they won’t be able to do that if they are confined to the park,” said Rob Edwards, director of carnivore restoration for Sinapu. “When they are seasonally unemployed during the winter, they will move outside the park.”

Several hearings will be set to discuss the elk-management alternatives, with the deadline for public comment set for July 4. The National Park Service will release its final decision in early 2007.

If the preferred option is approved, the culling would take place after dark using night-vision spotting scopes and rifles with noise-suppression devices.

Thinning the herd

IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

  • Number of elk the park habitat can support 1,200 to 2,100
  • Recommended number of elk in park habitat 1,200 to 1,700
  • Elk population in the park
  • 1968: 400 to 500
  • 2005: 3,000 to 4,000

WHAT’S NEXT?

Public comment period lasts until July 4
Final decision will be made in early 2007
E-mail comments to: romo_superintendent@nps.gov
Fax comments to: 970-586-1397
Mail comments to: Rocky Mountain National Park Headquarters 1000 Highway 36, Estes Park, CO 80517

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