Monthly Archives: December 2007

Editorial: Tax-free elk reduction

Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

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.

Click here for the original editorial.

Operation Estes Storm

Wolf packPark Service releases controversial plan to slaughter elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, eschews wolves

For Immediate Release

(Boulder, CO) The National Park Service today released a final plan to use sharpshooters to kill thousands of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, ignoring important lessons learned in Yellowstone National Park. The plan calls for sharpshooters and other unnatural management activities to be used to reduce and redistribute elk in the Park instead of considering wolf reintroduction.

“Today is a sad day for Rocky Mountain National Park,” said Rob Edward, the Director of Carnivore Restoration for Sinapu. “Today, the Park Service let politics and timidity triumph over science and common sense,” said Edward, referring to the fact that wolves released into Yellowstone National Park had done–in less than a decade–what the Park Service plans to do in Rocky Mountain National Park over many years using sharpshooters.

Edward stated that Sinapu and Forest Guardians intend to sue the Park Service over the plan, and said that other litigation is presently in the works regarding the National Park Service’s refusal to restore wolves as part of the agency’s legal mandate. The two groups filed a notice in November with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and National Park Service Director Mary Bomar indicating their intent to sue over the National Park Service’s lack of planning for wolf recovery within Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. The notice gives the government 60 days to respond to the claims raised.

“The managers of our federal lands must be good stewards of the wildlife on those lands,” said Edward. He stated the Endangered Species Act makes very clear that federal land management agencies must act to further the conservation of endangered species. “Why the government would choose to spend millions of dollars and turn our national park into a nocturnal shooting range for a problem that should be solved eloquently, by wolves, is puzzling,” said Edward.

John Horning, Executive Director of Forest Guardians in Santa Fe, underscored the need for the Park Service to be proactive on wolf recovery. “The vegetation of Rocky Mountain National Park is being rapidly depleted by scores of elk, and the Park Service’s plan is to have sharpshooters kill thousands of these elk under the cover of darkness,” said Horning. “Yet, as we’ve seen in Yellowstone, reintroducing wolves to the park can quickly and permanently restore the balance of nature and bring the entire ecosystem back to life.” Horning pointed to published scientific information from Yellowstone that shows that native plants regenerate more quickly if elk are kept on the move by wolves, and that culling elk is not necessary if wolves are present.

Edward indicated that the plan to cull elk in the park would cost millions of dollars and stands little chance of long-term success.

The Endangered Species Act’s Section 7 requires federal agencies to conserve federally protected species, including taking all measures possible to achieve species recovery. Horning and Edward agreed that the National Park Service is missing a perfect opportunity to meet two conservation objectives under the present plan: restoring wolves and protecting the park’s plants from sedentary elk.

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