Rocky Mountain National Park Officials Select "Lethal Reduction" To Help Reduce Elk Herd--Updated

Elk populations at Rocky Mountain National Park would be managed under a program that would allow culling by marksmen and birth control. NPS photo.

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:

* During the first year upwards of 120 cow elk will be captured, tested for Chronic Wasting Disease, and be injected with the birth-control agent GonaCon;

* 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.

Comments

I think the first line of your report speaks volumes - Incroaching civilation and lack of predators. I know something needs to be done, but if you are spending that much money, why not just move the elk to other areas, such as MO., KS., or Minnesota, that has the grasslands to support them. Just don't kill them cause man needs more room. These are God's creatures, too.

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...

Interesting statement. Especially inlight of Karl Hess's findings in Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Unnatural History. From a summary: "Hess asserts that management of the Park has amounted to an experiment in natural regulation. Hess examines the problematic nature of the elk herd since the mid-twenties, at which time the elk herd became so large that it posed a threat to the ecosystem. From 1944 until the late sixties, the Park Service attempted to keep the numbers to what was believed to be the carrying capacity by shooting elk. In 1968, this practice was stopped and, it was asserted, '... the elk herd is ... being allowed to fluctuate naturally with an eventual equilibrium with the forage supply expected'."

So, I guess it's been about the last 40 years that the NPS has supposedly let "'natural processes' govern the ecosystmes contained within the national park system." This after a half century of fire suppression, predator suppression, and all kinds of unnatural tinkering.

For more, please see:
Hess, Karl, Jr. Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Unnatural History. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1993. 167 p.--Attributes loss of biological diversity at Rocky Mountain to NPS "mismanagement and bureaucratic ineptitude" demonstrated by "a laissez-faire approach to elk population control and a long history of fire suppression."

The feds created the problem in the first place, and I don't know if the feds can realistically solve the problem. Fire crackers? Visitors can't use fireworks, why should NPS management? This seems pretty rediculous. Fences? That will only continue to fragment biological diversity. It's swallowing the spider to catch the fly...

Killing elk seems a more practical and cost-effective approach. I like that the meat will be given to "eligible recipients".

Kudos to Superintendent Vaughn Baker and the Rocky Mountain NP staff for the courage to use the science to make a difficult decision in favor of the resource. Supt. Baker also did that last year on air quality issues. While no one wants to see elk killed, what is more at stake is the vegetation and ecological community structure that too many elk destroy. NPS law and management policies have always allowed for wildlife management and it is welcome that more and more park managers recognize that it is needed in many circumstances.

Rather than blame them for past mistakes (->Frank), I think it's great that we're seeing parks and park managers take risks to solve problems.

JLongstreet
a national park superintendent (and not from Rocky!)

There's no escaping it. Whether practiced on elk, bison, feral hogs, or white-tailed deer, the use of firearms for the "lethal reduction" of wildlife populations in or near our parks is a bloody business. Some animals meet a violent end, and even if it is for the greater good, that is certainly a very sad thing. Small wonder that so many wildlife lovers reject hunting as a form of lethal reduction. They want park managers to rely on natural controls. In the case of the elk at Rocky Mountain, that means starvation and disease (there being too few predators to matter much). Think about that for a minute. Have you seen how starvation and sickness (they go hand-in-hand) ravage an animal's body? Being northern Michigan born and bred, I've seen a good bit of that myself. (It happens to over-abundant white-tailed deer in the northern cedar swamps, and the really ironic thing is that it peaks in late winter and early spring just before the landscape greens up and there's forage galore.) Starving to death is one of the most miserable of all ways to die, and I wouldn't wish it on any of God's creatures. Better a quick end from a well-placed bullet or arrow. It is one of the most merciful deaths that an animal could hope to have. If you don't believe that hunters or government-paid shooters should be the pruners of last resort, then let's work to bring back the predators. All of them.

Kurt:

Your post states: "With several thousand elk moving in and out of the park throughout the year, and no wolves to provide population control ...." Makes you wonder why the Park Service didn't push hard to adopt an alternative that would bring back wolves. With a quarter-million acres of wilderness in Rocky, and more forested wildlands to the north and south, you'd think there'd be room. Or maybe Rocky Mountain is really just a wild postage stamp hemmed in by development around Estes and Grand Lake, and we should give up on managing it as a truly wild place?

As for working to bring back the wolves, as Bob suggests, several conservation groups including Colorado-based Sinapu (which means "wolf" in Ute) are threatening to sue the Park Service for failing to return wolves to the Park. See http://sinapu.wordpress.com/2007/12/11/operation-estes-storm/.

Given the successes and lessons learned in Yellowstone from wolf recovery there, and the Park's mandate to protect natural processes, one would think the Park Service could (and should) be on the cutting edge of wolf recovery elsewhere.

It is a positive step that he Park is addressing ecosystem damage. It's too bad the Park didn't (or couldn't) go further.

I think the Park Rangers need to try the birth control first, befire killing the Elk. The Elk is what brings people to Estes is to see the Elk, in the park and around in town. you start shooting them, and you wont hardly see as many in the Park or in town . They will be gun shy.

Holly, are you arguing for immunocontraception using the PZP vaccine? (PZP stands for "porcine zona pellucida", which is made from pig ovaries.) If so, Can you tell us about results of recent studies? I know that scientists were experimenting with PZP-based immunocontraception back in 2004, but I've not kept up with their research. I'd be interested to know whether it's considered safe and cost-effective. Here's what Dr. Priscilla Cohn was saying a few years ago about using PZP-based immunocontraception as an alternative to lethal reduction:

"There are a number of practical advantages, some of which translate into ethical advantages, in using PZP. It is, on average, approximately ninety per cent effective, and does not pass through the food chain. Since only a small amount of the vaccine is needed, it can be delivered remotely by a dart, thus avoiding the stress of capture, or anesthesia. PZP does not significantly affect social behaviour and, so far, has not been found to cause any serious health problems. It is safe for pregnant animals, is reversible, and is effective on a broad range of species. The vaccine itself is very inexpensive. Costs for an immunocontraceptive program vary largely according to personnel expenses.

In general, then, there are many advantages to PZP immunocontraception. It is humane for animals, since it causes neither death nor discomfort. It represents no danger to humans, since it does not involve guns or razor-tipped arrows. It is effective since there is no rebound reproduction, a phenomenon that occurs when large numbers of animals are suddenly removed. Bizarre and often troublesome animal behavior is avoided, since the young are not orphaned, and social structure is not affected. Genetic diversity is not lost since it is reversible. Lethal methods, such as hunting and culling, offer none of these advantages. "

Hmmmmmmm. PZP Looks too good to be true.

I have mixed feelings about many of the elements here.

On one hand, after speaking with many locals in Estes park, I understand that the elk population is out of control, that they can be a nuisance, and even dangerous to the locals (calving in people's gardens and attacking the resident who is unaware of their presence).

On the other hand, they're majestic animals. As a photographer, they're a staple in my fall schedule. They're the most prominent wildlife in RMNP. It's a shame they can't be relocated. It's also a shame that they can't reintroduce wolves into the park to help naturally manage the population.

Another concern is the placement of fences in the park. Another eyesore in one of the most beautiful places in the world - but at least it will cost a small fortune.

Hey, how about instead of putting up fences, we just pave the entire park - that way there will be no place for the elk to graze and they'll go elsewhere? No ugly fences, just miles of concrete.

Or, in retrospect, another solution could be possible.

Perhaps it's not the elk that are the problem here. It's the encroachment of civilization.

We'll barricade highways 36 & 34. Nobody else gets in, just out.

Developers will be herded to other areas - maybe Nebraska, or Kansas, where their activity won't intrude on the wildlife population. Maybe drive them down a fenced corridor parallel to I70.

The tourist population could be culled, quietly at first. Rifles with silencers outside the local T-shirt shops in the late evening hours. Rubber bullets might be used initially, but I doubt that would be effective.

i know it's not a permanent solution, but it's a start.

Just my 2 cents.

Introducing a scientifically made birth control cocktail could bring more harm than good. The population is out of control. I know first hand as I live very close to Estes Park. Nothing is more enjoyable then taking a nice day trip into Rocky Mountain National Park and being able to view all the wildlife around including elk in town. To continue to do this, you have to control the population. I agree 100 percent with this method and would gladly be a volunteer (sharpshooter!!) to help. I also think the wolf should be introduced back into the population along with this program to allow nature to take its course. This would shorten the 20 year plan and less elk would have to be culled by human method.
One thing to keep in mind. Introducing the wolf back into the population would have to be monitored very closely. Too few would not be control the population and too many would kill off the elk at a rate that could not be accounted for.

I think it is a shame that we cannot enjoy the elk buggling and the joy of seeing elk in the city any longer, the park has taken that joy from us.

I'm certainly not anti-hunting. I'd be for some sort of control on the population of black-tailed deer that are in my neighborhood. Just the other day there was a buck with large antlers on the street which I had to avoid.

However - I'm wondering if hunting is the ideal solution. Most hunters want big trophy animals. Natural population controls (i.e. predators) tend to target the smaller and weaker members. In many ways, isn't hunting setting up the herd to be weaker?

y_p_w

Your comment is an interesting one. There's some discussion on that very subject on the story currently posted on the Traveler about elk hunts at Grand Teton.