By JUDITH KOHLER THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
DENVER – The elk that thrill visitors with statuesque poses and haunting, buglelike mating calls in Rocky Mountain National Park have become so numerous that park officials want hundreds of them shot and suggest wolves could help keep the herds in check.
The recommended alternative in a draft elk-management plan released Monday doesn’t suggest releasing wolves in the park, 70 miles northwest of Denver. Still, park officials said wolves would best meet environmental objectives and do the least damage.
“This is a 20-year plan, and a lot can happen in 20 years. Wolves may come in on their own,” park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson
Although the elk would provide plenty of food for wolves, wildlife biologists in the past have questioned whether there is enough winter habitat for the species in the high-altitude park. The park’s ability to sustain wolves without human conflicts also has been questioned because Rocky Mountain isn’t nearly as large as Yellowstone National Park and development has en- croached on two sides.
There are 2,200 to 3,000 elk roaming the park, and the animals are frequent visitors to the adjacent town of Estes Park. The preferred alternative in the draft plan calls for park employees or contractors to shoot 200 to 700 elk over four years and 25 to 150 elk annually for the next 16 years.
The goal is a population of 1,200 to 1,700 elk. Park officials say the solution must begin now because the herds are becoming a nuisance — to visitors who often sit in traffic as the animals cross the park’s winding mountain roads and to area’s flora. The elk chew up willows and aspen so important to other species, including songbirds and beavers.
Predators such as wolves and grizzly bears would force the elk to move around more and lead to some culling. But they haven’t been in the park for years, and a ban on hunting in national parks has resulted in big herds.
Elk densities, reaching as high as 260 elk per mile, are “the highest concentrations ever documented for a free-ranging population in the Rocky Mountains,” according to the park’s proposal.
Park officials realize some people will object to elk being killed, Patterson said. The plan calls for park employees and contractors to shoot the animals at night with silencers in part to keep the culling out of the public eye.
Shooting hundreds of the animals isn’t a long-term solution to overgrazing and habitat damage, said Rob Edward of Sinapu, a Boulder-based wildlife advocacy group that supports restoring wolves to Colorado.
“The only thing that will change that permanently is the presence of wolves unbridled by human management,” Edward said. “Politics is driving this. It should be good science and thoughtful policy.”
Wolves were wiped out in Colorado by the 1930s after ranchers, government agents and others shot, trapped and poisoned the predator. A state task force was formed after a wolf traced by its radio collar to Yellowstone National Park was found dead west of Denver in 2004.
Any proposal to restore wolves to Colorado would have to be considered by federal and state agencies and likely would meet strong opposition from ranchers and others. Critics argue that wolves are destroying big-game herds in Yellowstone and central Idaho, where a restoration program began in 1995.
Park officials included an option in the management plan to release at least two pairs of wolves to help control elk. Biologists say wolves would keep elk on the move and help ease the animals’ effect on vegetation.
Even if wolves were released, biologists believe as many as 500 elk still would have to be shot the first four years. Under another proposal, contraception would be given to elk.
Park officials will prepare a final environmental impact statement after taking public comments until July 4.
The Gazette contributed to this report.