The problem is the elk have altered the park’s ecosystem by eating aspens and willows into near oblivion, wiping out habitat for beavers and birds. They also amble through the yards and gardens of homes outside the park, increasing chances for conflicts with people.
But the park’s recommended solution — using sharpshooters to cull the herd at night — has stirred opposition from hunters, environmentalists and even members of Congress. A final plan is due this summer.
Biologists estimate there were from 2,200 to 3,000 elk in the park and surrounding valley. The numbers have fluctuated, dropping recently to 1,700 to 2,200 as some elk have moved farther east, possibly because of drought followed by rough winters. The goal is a population of 1,200 to 1,700.
Park biologist Therese Johnson said the area’s elk densities — up to 285 per square mile in some prime winter range — are the highest recorded for a free-ranging herd in the Rockies.
North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park faces a similar dilemma, where the public is pressuring park managers to enlist hunters rather than taxpayer-funded shooters to reduce the elk herd. An exception is Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. The 1950 law that approved the park allowed hunting to help keep down elk numbers because of the area’s limited winter range.
Rocky Mountain National Park officials said involving hunters was discussed to control the herd but wasn’t among the options in a preliminary plan released last year because of legal hurdles. A 1929 law bans hunting in the park. Development has limited hunting outside park boundaries.
“There are also 90 years of expectations that visitors can recreate here and not be displaced by hunters,” park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said.
The option backed by park officials in a draft 20-year elk management plan calls for contractors or federal employees to shoot between 200 and 700 elk annually in the first four years and 25 to 150 each year after that.
Park officials recommended that the shooting be done at night with guns equipped with silencers and night-vision scopes to keep the culling out of public view. The program’s cost was estimated at $18 million, although Patterson said it likely will be lower in the final document. The cost includes research, monitoring and fencing to protect vegetation from overgrazing.
Other alternatives in the plan include elk birth control and releasing a limited number of wolves in the park. Biologist Johnson said the wolves’ biggest benefit would be keeping the elk on the run so they wouldn’t graze too much in one spot.
More than 100 years ago, there were no elk in the park. They were eliminated late in the 19th century by unregulated hunting.
An Estes Park civic club rallied a couple years before the park was created in 1915 to restore elk to the area by relocating them from other areas. With wolves wiped out by hunting and government extermination, elk flourished. The park controlled the size of the herd by moving some elk to other areas and culling by federal and state wildlife officers.
The herd started expanding in the late 1960s when National Park Service philosophy began relying on natural processes — predators, weather, hunting outside parks — to manage wildlife.
Environmentalists see the restoration of wolves to the area as the best answer and one that has worked in Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone’s elk herd grew largely unchecked in part because of the loss of most predators. That changed when wolves were released there in 1995.
“The Park Service has a mandate to restore and protect natural ecological processes,” said Rob Edward of Sinapu, a Boulder-based group that advocates restoration of wolves in the southern Rockies.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife has its own preference: using licensed hunters rather than federal employees or contractors to shoot the elk. State officials say hunters would do it for free and use the meat.
The idea also has gained bipartisan support in Congress. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., have sponsored bills authorizing the two parks in their states to allow hunters to thin elk herds.
By Judith Kohler, Associated Press (click here for original article).