Encroaching civilization and a lack of predators is forcing Rocky Mountain National Park officials to be more proactive in their animal husbandry when it comes to managing the park's burgeoning elk herd.
Though the National Park Service long has prided itself on letting "natural processes" govern the ecosystems contained within the national park system, those days are fading away in the Lower 48 as private lands turn into subdivisions and predators are driven off.
With several thousand elk moving in and out of the park throughout the year, and no wolves to provide population control, Rocky Mountain officials have announced a plan that will rely on "lethal reduction," birth control, herding and adverse conditioning techniques to reduce the elk population.
That decision, announced today in the park's final environmental impact statement that addresses elk and vegetation management in the alpine park, seems to clash with the Park Service's stated wildlife mission to mission to “preserve the natural resources, process, systems, and values of units of the national park system in an unimpaired condition, to perpetuate their inherent integrity and to provide present and future generations with the opportunity to enjoy them.”
At Rocky Mountain, Superintendent Vaughn Baker realizes that seeming conflict, but said these steps must be taken to keep elk from over-running the park's willow and aspen stands, which provide habitat for other species.
"I think we've recognized that that's the reality, because in the absence of the natural predators here we have to kind of replicate what they would do for us," Superintendent Baker said during a conference call with reporters to outline the preferred management plan.
"Our policies do allow us to do all of those (mitigation steps) where warranted. Those may not necessary be our preferences, but I think that's the reality of the situation that we find ourselves in, and we are mandated to maintain natural processes here at 'Rocky,'" he continued. "What our research told us is under current conditions we're not doing that. And so we need to kind of step in and help along the way to make that happen."
While the steps proposed to winnow the elk population -- shooting up to 200 elk a year, using birth control on the herds, fencing them out of areas, shooting elk with rubber bullets to convince them to stay out of certain areas, and even actively herding elk on horseback and with dogs -- run counter to any "natural processes," the superintendent said they have no other sound alternative to protect the park's ecosystem from the elk.
"As we see the ecosystem continue to decline, what we're trying to do is reverse that by taking these actions and hopefully get us back on a path where natural processes will predominate once again," said Superintendent Baker.
Exactly how many elk are in the park varies throughout the year. While the range of animals in recent years has been pegged at somewhere between 2,200 and 3,100, according to wildlife biologist Therese Johnson, during the past five winters the average count has been between 1,700 and 2,200. The park's objective is to keep the winter population between 1,600 and 2,100.
Under the preferred alternative, which could take effect within 30-60 days depending on when the final Record of Decision is signed by Intermountain Regional Director Mike Snyder and remain in place for 20 years:
* As many as 200 elk a year could be culled by rangers or their "authorized agents," which could include volunteers, contractors, other state or federal agency marksmen, or even tribal personnel;
* Select areas would be fenced to protect vegetation from elk;
* Elk that stay on their winter range in summer could be actively herded to their summer ranges, and;
* Adverse conditioning utilizing rubber bullets and firecrackers could be used to push elk away from select areas.
"Anecdotal information certainly suggests that the herd needs to be reduced. I don’t have any problem with the methods selected," says Bill Wade, who chairs the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' executive council. "Far better, in my opinion, than any kind of public hunting. ... Best alternative would be increase natural predation, but it looks that is a ways off in that neck of the woods, if ever."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Southwest Regional Director David Nimkin said the park's preferred alternative appears to be the only feasible solution at this time.
"We recognize, underscore, and support the authority of the Park Service to be able to make these kinds of choices and decisions they need to," says Mr. Nimkin.
As to the question of how "natural" the preferred alternative is, he added that: "It's not entirely a natural process when natural migration corridors have closed, where natural predation is not available. In a lot of ways, the large population is having deleterious effects on the resources, on the elk themselves."
Over the course of the two-decade-long program the park would spend about $6 million on implementing the plan. After an initial $2.1 million is spent on fencing, the program's annual costs would be just over $200,000, according to park estimates.
When it comes time to cull the park's elk herds, something that won't occur during the first year of the plan, marksmen armed with rifles fitted with silencers will shoot elk under very controlled conditions and at early hours to avoid public attention. There will be no public hunt.
"This is not a hunting activity," explained Superintendent Baker. "As I've told people this is not people out in the woods in orange vests as we envision hunting going on in Colorado's wilderness. It will be a very organized and a very controlled setting."
Meat from culling and not infected by Chronic Wasting Disease would be distributed to eligible recipients, such as Indian tribes.