By David Olinger,
Denver Post Staff Writer
To save aspen, willows and beavers, a Rocky Mountain National Park plan calls for rangers using guns with silencers to shoot hundreds of elk at night.
“Lethal reduction” – the preferred option in a plan for dealing with elk issued by the park Monday – would cull up to 700 animals a year.
The night shooting would minimize disturbances to visitors who come to hike the park’s rugged trails and watch the elk graze its valleys, park officials said.
“It sounds like a very tricky operation to do successfully,” said Steve Smith, the Wilderness Society’s assistant regional director.
“I will be curious,” Smith said, “to see how local people respond to the notion of firearms being discharged at night.”
The park also could erect fences to protect 545 acres of young aspen trees from being eaten by elk.
The culling and fencing are key elements in the plan to reduce the size of an elk population that has grown in the absence of predators and ravaged plant communities needed by other animals.
The swelling herds have been particularly hard on beavers, which feed on and build dams from riparian willow shrubs.
The beaver population has plummeted in the park, a decline linked, in part, to elk grazing in the willows.
Some environmental groups question why the elk’s natural predator – the wolf – was not chosen to restore the park’s natural balance.
“Using wolves really fits the mission of a national park,” said the Wilderness Society’s Smith.
Sinapu, a Boulder-based wildlife-advocacy group, called for conservationists to “howl for wolves” as a better alternative.
Wolves make elk more wary and mobile. “The elk aren’t spending half a day grazing everything within a neck’s distance to the ground,” said Rob Edward, Sinapu’s director of carnivore restoration.
National Park Service officials emphasize that their preferred alternative plan is preliminary and will be modified in response to public comments.
They also say that none of the other alternatives they considered to reduce the herd, from introducing wolves to elk birth control, would have succeeded without killing elk as well.
“We’ve already had a large decline in aspen and willow in high elk-use areas,” said Therese Johnson, the park biologist leading its management plan.
Without killing some elk, she said, “we’d be converting willow and aspen stands, which support a higher level of wildlife diversity, into grasslands.”
The park’s “lethal reduction” plan allows for flexibility. It calls for shooting 200 to 700 elk for four years, based on whether factors such as reproduction rates, weather and hunting outside the park affect its yearly elk population. Elk would then be killed at lower rates, 25 to 150 a year, for the next 16 years.
The overall goal: Reducing the elk numbers, now ranging from 2,200 to 3,000, to a sustainable population of 1,200 to 1,700.
If the night shooting doesn’t work, the plan allows for other killing methods: guns without silencers, anesthesia darts “followed by lethal injection” and wolves.
Johnson said relying on wolves alone would be impractical.
“It would become very difficult to implement,” she said. “Wolves are a wide-ranging species, and the park is small.”
Under the park plan, some carcasses would be left in the woods for animals that eat carrion. Some of the meat would be donated if tests showed it was free of chronic wasting disease.
The park has not decided how to distribute the meat.
The Park Service says the public can review the plan online and make comments at parkplanning.nps.gov.