Trimming the herd

Five proposals on table to reduce animal numbers in national park

By Jason Williams, For the Camera

In Rocky Mountain National Park and neighboring Estes Park, elk long have been a tourist draw and symbol of the region. But now numbering as many as 3,000, or nearly twice their optimal density, they are munching sensitive willow and aspen and damaging the park’s habitats.

Since 1969, the elk have multiplied unchecked. But that’s probably going to change.

An updated draft of the Elk and Vegetation Management Plan, nearly a decade in the making, was released Monday. The park’s preferred option includes shooting up to 700 elk annually for four years to quickly achieve a target population of between 1,200 and 2,100. The herd then would be maintained by shooting between 25 and 150 elk each year for the following 16 years.

Plans could include fencing around a possible 1,405 acres of sensitive willow and aspen habitat, as well as herding and dispersing elk with various techniques.

The preferred plan also includes the possible introduction of a limited numbers of gray wolves to redistribute the elk herd if other human efforts are unsuccessful.

If wolves are used to distribute the elk, initially four and up to 14 wolves, possibly two packs, would be “intensively managed” and monitored by park service staff or contractors.

“The public has been wanting details for three years — now here are those details,” said Kyle Patterson, spokeswoman for the park.

Though the preferred plan includes the potential for introducing wolves to the park, the director of carnivore restoration for a Boulder wildlife group says the plan still falls far short.

“Clearly, if they were listening to what the science is telling us, then they would be calling for weaving wolves back into the landscape on a regional scale,” said Rob Edward, of Sinapu, which promotes restoring carnivores to their native habitats in the Southern Rockies. “Instead, you have a document that makes a nod to wolf [predation], but does not have the political chutzpah to do that.”

Edward said the plan would require tightly controlled, essentially semi-captive wolves, and it would be unlikely to achieve the needs of the park.

The draft outlines five possible alternatives to address the burgeoning elk population. Other plans include a more moderate and gradual lethal reduction of the elk herd or giving the elk birth control.

“All of the alternatives have a component of lethal reduction and a component of redistribution,” said Therese Johnson, a biologist at the Park.

The draft also reserves the option of taking no action at all, and leaving the elk population and vegetation to natural variables such as weather and migration.

Estes Park Mayor John Baudek would prefer a less-aggressive approach to culling the elk herd.

“I’d like it to be a little more gradual,” Baudek said, noting that natural causes may decrease the elk numbers.

If wolves were to be introduced to the park, Baudek said he would want it to be very limited, and he would want to make sure the wolves were monitored closely. But he also acknowledged that the restored wolf population in Yellowstone had been a boon to the regional economy.

“From a tourist standpoint it could be interesting and positive,” Baudek said.

The plan will be open to public comment through July 4.

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