RMNP plans to cull elk herd

Too many animals threaten vegetation

By Douglas Crowl
The Daily Times-Call

ESTES PARK — The regal elk herd that gives Rocky Mountain National Park its soul and the Estes Valley a large part of its economic vitality will be thinned by sharpshooters under a long-term plan favored by federal officials to protect the park’s habitat.

The culling effort is the “preferred alternative” of five management options for reducing elk numbers in the Estes Valley under a draft 20-year elk- and vegetation-
management plan released Monday.

Park biologists believe between 2,200 and 3,000 elk live in the park during at least some of the year. They would like to cut the population down to 1,200 to 1,700 animals in four years to keep the oversized herd from eating new-growth willow and aspen trees, an important component of the ungulates’ diet but also vital to species such as songbirds.

Hunting is banned in national parks, which has allowed the herd living in and around Rocky to reach densities of as much as 260 elk per square mile, “the highest concentrations ever documented for a free-ranging population in the Rocky Mountains,” the Environmental Impact Statement for the management plan said.

To solve the problem, the park has proposed using staff or a contractor to cut the elk population in order to stop vegetation damage. Under the recommended alternative, between 200 and 700 elk would be shot annually, primarily using rifles, until the target population is reached.

Along with the culling, the park’s preferred plan also includes fencing off 586 acres of willow and aspen groves as protection from the browsing elk.

Park officials began working on the plan nearly three years ago after studies showed that new-growth willow and aspen trees was declining unnaturally in the park.

In Estes Park — whose economy hinges on tourists, many of whom visit to view the elk during the fall rut and to listen to the their piercing bugles — officials say they understand that the elk herd has outgrown the habitat’s capacity to support it.

Mayor John Baudek said the town needs the elk to be around but also depends on a healthy herd.

“The problem is that there is so many elk, it’s killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” Baudek said.

He said the town has worked closely with park officials and supports some type of herd reduction, although he would like the plan to be implemented more gradually than the four years under the recommended alternative.

While that option shies away from a separate alternative that called for re-introducing wolves as a natural, but intensively managed, form of elk population control, it does not entirely dismiss the role of the carnivores, killed off in Colorado in the 1930s.

While pro-carnivore and anti-hunting interests strongly supported the wolf proposal, it met formidable criticism from advocates of agriculture and other land-use interests.

According to park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson, wolves preying on elk herds and affecting their migration around the park could still be considered among the viable “elk-redistribution techniques” included in the preferred alternative.

“This is a 20-year plan, and a lot can change in the 20 years,” Patterson said.

Pro-carnivore group Sinapu released a statement Monday saying that the park buckled under political pressure and ignored science saying the wolves were the best option.

As proposed in the preferred alternative, elk culling would take place mostly at night with the use of spotlights, night-vision firearms and scopes, laser sights and silencers to cut down on public exposure to the program.

“This is strictly taking management action inside the park. … There’s nothing recreational about it; we are managing numbers,” park biologist Therese Johnson said.

A temporary capture facility such as a “corral trap” also could be used to herd animals to help obtain objective numbers, according to the plan.

“Elk could be attracted to the facility using bait,” the plan states. “Alternatively, trained herding dogs, riders on horseback, people on foot with noisemakers or visual devices, or helicopters could direct elk to the facility.”

The elk then would be shot, killed by a penetrating bolt similar to those used to kill cattle, or killed by lethal injection.

Once the target population is established after four years, another 25 to 150 elk would be killed annually for the next 16 years to maintain the population, under the preferred alternative.

All the elk killed will be tested for chronic wasting disease, providing the park with data on the prevalence of the lethal ailment, Johnson said.

Meat from culled elk that tested negative for CWD likely would be donated, Johnson said.

The public can comment in the plan during public meetings slated for late May, and written comments will be accepted until July 4. Park officials will make a final decision on the plan, choosing either the preferred alternative or one of the other management options, by the end of the year, Patterson said.

The park could begin implementing the plan by next summer.

Alternatives to culling elk herds in RMNP

Alternative 1

No action

Alternative 2, preferred

Use lethal reduction of elk by agency personnel to reach a population target of 1,200 to 1,700 elk within the first four years of the plan, followed by lower levels of lethal reduction during the next 16 years to maintain this population size. This alternative includes the use of elk-redistribution techniques to move and disperse elk and up to 545 acres of fencing in aspen communities to exclude elk. Adaptive management is built into the process so that in later stages of implementation of this alternative, and given appropriate interagency cooperation, the release of intensively managed wolves could be considered as a potential redistribution technique.

Alternative 3

Rely on gradual lethal reduction spread over 20 years to reduce the herd to a population target of 1,600 to 2,100 elk. This alternative includes the use of elk-redistribution techniques to move and disperse elk, and up to 1405 acres of fencing in aspen and montane riparian willow communities to exclude elk.

Alternative 4

Use a fertility-control agent and lethal reduction spread over 20 years to reduce the herd to a population target of 1,600 to 2,100 elk. This alternative includes the use of elk-redistribution techniques to move and disperse elk, and up to 1405 acres of fencing in aspen and montane riparian willow communities to exclude elk.

Alternative 5

Involve the release of a limited number of wolves to be intensively managed and maintained in the park, and lethal reduction by agency staff to reduce the herd to a population target of 1,600 to 2,100 elk within the first four years of the plan, followed by lower levels of lethal reduction during the next 16 years to maintain the population between 1,200 and 2,100 elk. This alternative relies on a few intensively managed wolves to redistribute elk, but also includes the potential to use up to 545 acres of fencing in aspen communities to exclude elk as needed.

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