Well worth trying
Those who’ve spent much time watching the elk in Rocky Mountain National Park know that the animals often look more relaxed than elk do in, say, the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.
Under natural conditions, the elk population would be controlled partly by predators. By the time Colorado attained statehood, however, hunters had nearly wiped out the elk and their chief predator, wolves. Elk were reintroduced beginning in 1913. Wolves were not.
Controlled hunting in the park ceased in 1969, and the elk population has since tripled, exceeding the park’s “carrying capacity” of 1,600 to 2,100 elk. Hordes of elk fuel tourism. But they harm the ecosystem.
Some elk within the park’s boundaries no longer migrate between winter and summer ranges. The animals are apparently content to gorge themselves on willow and aspen. That over-grazing puts such plant populations at risk, and could cause concomitant damage to beaver habitat.
An environmental-impact statement on the park’s elk-management plan says elk overpopulation is particularly hard on willows and aspen. “Research consistently indicates that a continuation of the high elk densities in Rocky Mountain National Park would result in the complete loss of aspen trees or, at best, existence in a shrub-like state on core winter range areas,” the environmental-impact statement notes.
The loss of aspen, willows and other species reduces the biodiversity of the park. Wolf reintroduction is a more natural alternative, but it is not a short-term solution. Wolves, long demonized in the West, are still a tough sell politically.
The final draft of the park’s elk-management plan, released Tuesday, calls for the culling (meaning the killing) of up to 200 elk per year over the next 20 years. The plan is not to open the park for hunting, but rather to use “qualified volunteers.”
“This is not people out in the woods in orange vests as we envision hunting going on in Colorado wildernesses,” Vaughn Baker, park superintendent, told the Camera.
The plan is to donate the meat from the slaughtered animals to Native American tribes and others. Meanwhile, rangers would try to herd some elk out of the park and also use “adverse conditioning” to encourage them to move where hunting is legal.
Those who care about the welfare of animals are understandably uncomfortable with “lethal reduction” and justifiably eager to see the elk-culling efforts managed in as humane a manner as possible.
The carnivore-restoration group Sinapu has notified the Interior Department of its intention to sue. Sinapu argues that the park service did not adequately consider the reintroduction of wolves as an elk-management strategy.
“Rocky Mountain National Park should do as Yellowstone did and provide leadership for an entire region that’s in need of rekindling wolf predation,” Rob Edward, Sinapu’s director of carnivore restoration, told the Camera. “It’s very clear that the experiences of Yellowstone National Park are directly transferable to the problems here.”
The suit is welcome. Though wolf reintroduction would take some time to achieve its desired effect, it would have the benefit of restoring some semblance of the natural order of things in an area that, incidentally, has just been designated as federal wilderness. Management by wolf would also have the added benefit of sparing taxpayers the expense of unnaturally culling the herd.
Clint Talbott, for the editorial board of the Daily Camera.