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.

26 responses to “Editorial: Tax-free elk reduction

  1. The count, when they will do it, drops by close to 2000/year, I guess we can subtract that from the 6738. The griz eat the calves the first few weeks of life, then the little guys can out run even a griz, after that the main predator is the wolf, they just never release those numbers. The report jsut released indicated 40% of the wolf kills are calves, 40% are bulls, which were supposed to not be affected by wolves, the other 20% were “old cows”. No mention whatsoever of young or middle aged cows. No mention of how many elk are left in the northern herd, which is the only one actually counted. However Ed Bangs is saying over and over how bad the forage is etc….I have photos of the elk belly deep in grass in Sept/ October. Here’s one, does this look like shortage of feed?

  2. Steve, I feel that if you continue to have the calf recruitment that you have been seeing in YNP for a few more years, that herd could be in some trouble. Especially if we have a bad winter. They had low teens in the calf recruitment for over 5 years in a row. Its not only wolves, grizz are harder on new calves, but I think if the trend continues you would have to eliminate ALOT of the late season elk hunts in the area. Which is evident with the Gardiner late hunt down to like 100 tags this year. They used to give 2000 tags 6 years ago. But time will tell I guess.

  3. I was in yellowstone over the week of thanksgiving. No elk the first couple days on the northern range but after the first significant snowfall they were EVERYWHERE. Seemed like they came out of nowhere.

  4. I was in GTNP during the hunting season this year and it caused me problems. I was not comfortable or safe, trying to take photographs of moose, while guys dressed in orange and carrying rifles were all over the park. If the wolves are killing all of the elk, why are there so many coming out of Yellowstone into the Jackson area?
    There are wolves in most of the area surrounding Yellowstone. A pack moving out of one area and into another will run into a conflict with the local wolf pack and one pack will eliminate the other.
    I was in Yellowstone this fall when the Mollies Pack did that to the Haydens. Check my website: LarryThorngren.com. to see photos of both packs. I have closeups of the Hayden Pack hunting elk two days before they were killed by the Mollies Pack.

  5. That page describes the cycle of an inverse predator prey relationship that you seem to think does not exist. Wolves up> deer down>wolves down>deer up>wolves up repeat. It says right in the article the the decrease in deer was arrested in 1975. I see nothing there saying that wolves at themselves into starvation…

  6. A white tail deer population in one of the Great Lakes States is mentioned in one of Mech’s books, but I can’t find it now.
    This article may shed some light for you.


  7. You present your numbers as if there is no wolf mortality and no elk being born and a constant number of elk being killed per month regardless of seasonal conditions. It is sad that you still make the same ridiculous points over and over such as wolves eating themselves into starvation (something that you still refuse to prove has ever happened). Your hillbilly math does not cut it for me. Please reference a wolf population that has completely destroyed its food supply and had to move out of an area. I dare you.

  8. Uhhh, Steve, the wolf population increase 20% again this year. the only leveling off was when the pups got parvo or whatever last year. there are at least 150 of them that were counted, that is 300 elk per month/ over 3000/year. The wolves have been found to eat from 1.8 to 2.2 elk per month per each. We is anyone willing to read the numbers in the report from year to year.
    The wolves are fighting to the death over territory now, I guess it is exciting for wolfers to be able to cheer on their favorite pack. Do they still have enough to eat, yep, and they will continue to increase and eat until it is gone and they head for ranches and wildlife outside of Yellowstone.

  9. It doesnt seem like a good idea to me to kill a bunch of elk and completely remove them from the ecosystem. At least with wolves the elk “biomass” stays in the system (the carcass is consumed and is spread around for plants and animals of future generations to grow). Much like removing nutrients etc. with logging, removing elk from the system leaves the system a little less healthy in each generation.

    Where is the abundance of wolves in yellowstone with nothing to eat? As the food supply leveled off the wolf population growth has slowed to a standstill. Where do you get 3000 elk in a season? From the early days of reintroduction? Who is the “we” that found out in yellowstone?

  10. Elk have been hunted in GTNP for many years without problems.
    I imagine there they would have to have a closed park hunt on certain days until they got the 200. the advantage with hunters would be the control, which is non existent with wolves. A very severe winter with a high death toll would mean fewer hunters the following year, even none if conditions warranted. With wolves it could mean a population explosion since there would temporarily be lots to eat, then you’d have an abundance of hungry wolves with nothing to eat.
    As we found out in Yellowstone 3000 elk can go in a season.

  11. Elkhunter,

    Yep, that’s me, always jumping to conclusions. Always going out on limbs that I shouldn’t otta’. I just can’t help myself, though, given that I’ve worked on this issue an average of sixty hours a week for the past fifteen years. Given that I have read nearly every scientific paper available on wolves in North America, some more than once. Given all that, I should know better.

  12. And also an opportunity for pro-hunters to bring hunting into a national park (will this set a precedent for solving problems in other national parks?)… Two sides to every argument.

  13. Rob,
    I think you are going out on a limb and trying to compare RMNP to YNP. Two very different parks and two very different situations. The elk problem in RMNP could be solved very quickly by just using hunters. Of course we all know that this is just an opportunity that pro-wolf would use to try and get wolves re-introduced.

  14. The original infamous Green River Pack were livestock killers, the female not only killed livestock herself, but taught her mates and pups the same. Several times they killed off the male, but left the female, until finally they decided that she was the teacher and killer, and finally took her out too.
    I don’t think the problem was breaking up the pack as much as it was failing to remove the teacher, who had a taste for beef and mutton.
    Politically correct is what sounds good, not necessarily what is good or best.

  15. Thanks Rob! I’ll dig into that some more. A Merry Solstice to you — safe travels.

  16. Steve,

    I am headed out of town, but what I was referencing came from George Wuerthner’s letter to ID F&G on their wolf plan. He probably has the cites. Here’s and excerpt from his letter:

    Here’s the problem. If you permit indiscriminate hunting of wolves as the current plan proposes, you potentially disrupt the social networks of the wolves. For instance, if the dominant wolves in a pack that currently is not causing any conflicts with humans (i.e. killing livestock) are killed, the rest of the pack, less experienced in hunting, may resort to killing livestock to feed pack members, or perhaps will not be able to defend its territory from another pack. Thus the indiscriminate killing of wolves causes instability between packs, leading to greater stress.

    Indiscriminate hunting also skews the population towards younger animals. Younger animals breed and raise more pups. Since the younger animals are less skillful hunters, they also tend to take livestock. Also with a reduced population of wolves, wolves respond by producing more pups. More pups is more mouths to feed–again putting stress on the adult hunters and forcing them to chase the easiest prey–namely livestock and perhaps even a greater number of ungulates in order to feed the many growing pups.

    All of this then creates a feedback mechanism whereby wolf control results in more wolf depredation, which in turn feeds calls for more wolf control. But it is a self created situation.

    I hope that helps. Sorry that I misunderstood your point.

  17. PS:

    I whole-heartedly concur with your statement:

    “We should learn the lessons from other recovery programs and do things better (for wolves) here.”

  18. Rob – I didn’t misapprehend YOUR point, I was taking issue with the Camera’s implication that wolves would be “tax free.”

    Also, I don’t “assume that it is necessary and proper to be killing wolves at the drop of a hat.”

    But until someone develops highly reliable, easily deployed, long-term non-lethal means, I expect conflicts. Non-lethal deterrence and lethal removals alike cost money, so I can’t buy the argument that having wolves back will be cheap or free. [Sorry I deviated in my previous post and failed to make that clear — perils of too much caffeine!]

    You mention that “slaughtering multiple members of family units . . . actually increases the likelihood of further depredation.” Can you point me toward some research on that?

  19. Mr. Primm, you misapprehend our point here: The Southern Rockies need wolves; peer-review/published science has clearly shown we have the capacity for over 1,000 (and that those wolves will likely need to be reintroduced if we want them before 2050); Rocky Mountain National Park has engaged in a process to deal with a problem rooted in the lack of coursing predation, and has the capacity to ignite a regional reintroduction, just as Yellowstone did.

    You also assume that it is necessary and proper to be killing wolves at the drop of a hat: It isn’t. We have an obligation to restore wolves, and the ecological processes that they drive. We need to find ways to empower ranchers to: 1) protect their livestock using non-lethal means; 2) deal lethally with individual wolves, but only as a last resort, and only as a means of averting slaughtering multiple members of family units, which actually increases the likelihood of further depredation; 3) work toward voluntary permanent buyout on those allotments where conflict continues to be a problem.

    It’s time to get on with the job of restoring wolves. We should learn the lessons from other recovery programs and do things better (for wolves) here.

  20. Marion – I propose that we don’t use the term “politically correct” without defining what the heck it means. I sure don’t know what it means.

    I have to disagree with the conjecture (implied in the Boulder paper’s editorial) that wolves would be cheaper (or even FREE!) compared to shooting elk.

    RMNP is tiny compared to Yellowstone (only about one-eighth YNP’s size), with a significant portion of the park above treeline. The “out-of-control” elk population is only about 3,000 animals, while there are some 20,000 or more elk that spend some time in YNP — part of some 90,000 + elk in the whole Greater Yellowstone (that’s right — we still have elk in spite of the voracious wolves!!).

    Point being, wolves would end up being “managed” (that is, killed) quite intensively in a setting like RMNP and environs. It’s a postage stamp compared to the GYE, and wolves can’t read maps to know that dispersers and migrators should carefully circumnavigate ranchlands and suburbs to get to the next designated protected area.

    Right or wrong, expect conflicts and expect swift reprisals by the airborne killers.

    Rob is correct that there lessons from Yellowstone can be transferred to RMNP. But let’s not cherry pick the “good” lessons about aspens and willows. I’m not saying there’s no way to restore wolves to the Colorado Rockies (I will be surprised if they don’t get it done themselves by 2015), but let’s make sure we maximize learning from the restoration effort in Yellowstone.

  21. Being shot is painless? You have a very warped viewpoint.

  22. Steve,
    Thats true.

  23. If it weren’t for trying to be politically correct, they could award 200 high priced permits to 200 carefully selected hunters, eliminate 200 elk painlessly and make money in the process.
    Unfortunately between bureaucrats and environmentalists common sense has flown out the window.

  24. elkhunter, when have you ever known the government to do anything as simple as bringing in 200 people per year to kill 200 elk per year. They will turn that into a multimillion dollar waste just like they do with everything else.

  25. I meant 200 people to kill 200 elk per year.

  26. Save the tax-payers money!!! LOL I about died when I read that. Ya this whole wolf issue has been nothing but a blue-light special! It has cost tax-payers MILLIONS AND MILLIONS OF DOLLARS. Bring 200 people in to kill 200 wolves. Or pay MILLIONS to bring some wolves in, and pay MILLIONS to manage and handle all the lawsuits that would surely follow.