Sharpshooters To Begin Reducing Elk Herds in Rocky Mountain National Park

Culling operations soon will get under way in Rocky Mountain National Park to bring down the population of elk in the park. NPS photo.

"Culling." It's a fairly innocuous word. Look it up in the dictionary and one of the definitions you'll find is "to remove rejected members or parts from (a herd, for example)."

Use that word in the context of a national park and, well, that could spur some discussion, if not outright controversy since "natural processes" are supposed to rule in the National Park System. So let's see what happens in the coming days when culling operations get under way at Rocky Mountain National Park, where the focus will not specifically be on removing "rejected" elk, but simply on tamping down the overall elk populations.

The need to trim the herds is fairly obvious -- Rocky Mountain, in effect, is being over-grazed by the ungulates, so much so that beaver habitat, for example, has all but vanished across much of the park.

Now, if wolf packs still roamed Rocky Mountain sharpshooters might not be needed to remove about 100 elk this winter. But the natural predators long ago were hunted to oblivion in and around the park, (although there still are suspicions that a wolf or two from the Yellowstone National Park stock might be lurking the mountains in and around Rocky).

And public hunting is not allowed in the park. At least not currently. There are some who thought a public hunt would be one way to control the elk populations in Rocky Mountain. Similar thoughts are receiving attention at Theodore Roosevelt and Wind Cave national parks.

Rocky Mountain officials actually settled back in December 2007 on a 20-year elk control plan that includes an option to resort to culling operations in a bid to control the elk numbers. They're also trying birth control. Depending on natural circumstances, some years might not require culling operations.

Exactly how many elk are in the park varies throughout the year. While the range of animals in recent years in the park sub-population and the Estes Park sub-population has been pegged at somewhere between 2,200 and 3,100, according to park wildlife biologists, during the past five winters the average count has been between 1,700 and 2,200. The park's objective is to keep the combined winter population of the two herds between 1,600 and 2,100.

Now, some groups believe the National Park Service should mount a wolf recovery program in Rocky Mountain to take care of the elk boom. While WildEarth Guardians sued the Park Service last March on just that point, a ruling is not imminent and no injunction was put in place to prevent culling operations.

Still, the group sent a letter on Wednesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to put a stop to the culling operations.

Comments

It seems so sad to kill the elk,but I really am not educated enough on this issue to know the right answer. I hope that the elk meat is eaten. The hunters should not be able to make money on antlers or anything else from their kill. I hope that the birth control will prove to be a solution.

As I understand it, the meat will go to folks who participated in a lottery. None of the shooters will be allowed to keep antlers or meat.

They should have given the meat to local food banks !!!

Jane

Can't we auction the right to shoot the animals? The money could go to good use in other areas of the park.

The problem is that allowing a public hunt would establish a dangerous precedent. This "culling" is similar to what they used to do in Yellowstone back in the forties and fifties. It was finally stopped in the sixties which, of course, led to the famous (infamous) Northern Range herd of the early ninties of 19,000 plus animals; several thousand of which died of winter-kill the year that the wolves were reintroduced. Of course the wolves got the "blame" even though they were still in their holding pens. What they discovered in Yellowstone was that "culling" elk doesn't solve the problem. Elk numbers may have been lower, but the remaining animals still hung out in river bottoms and ate every single aspen or willow shoot to the ground, destroying habitat for beavers, fish, songbirds and even moose before moving on. Only with the reintroduction of the apex predator, wolves, and the establishment of the "ecology of fear" did elk learn once again to act like elk instead of cows. Now they are constantly on the move and entire habitats are making a dramatic comeback. Even red fox and pronghorn (two species heavily preyed upon by coyotes) have benefited, as coyote numbers have been brought under control by the wolves.
Reintroducing wolves to Rocky Mountain National Park is the obvious right answer. Problem is that in a few years the wolves will be spreading beyond park boundaries, and nearby ranchers will be insisting that their numbers be "culled". The real problem is that Rocky Mountain National Park is too darn small. All of our National parks are. You can't contain an ecosystem inside park boundaries. Even Yellowstone, as large as it is, has seen this with the bison controvery.....and wolves. Unfortuneately, when most of these parks were formed they could not have foreseen that civilization would one day encroach right to their borders; and even if they had, the effects that would have.

Frank N-

Excellent comments and one could not say it better. Western parks went from being islands of civilization in a sea of wilderness to islands of wilderness in a sea of civilization.

Regardless, I foresee future hindsight exposing this program as being yet another example of poor management decision making - leeches for a fever instead of medicine.

I agree that Frank N has said it all very well. I think introduction of wolves, if even for a time (i.e. until they start to cause more issues outside the park than they solve within), would be a very natural and viable option. An option mentioned in the article that I shuddered to read regards using birth control. What kind of birth control would that be, exactly? Hormonal therapy, such as what we humans have manufactured and think is so great for our bodies? Yikes! That seems to be so far off from a natural solution that it is downright scary to think about. Look at all the side effects to humans from these chemical hormones we put into our bodies. What sort of side effects would chemical manipulation of animal hormones cause? Furthermore, what about the fact that there are issues with pharmaceuticals (especially hormones) already present in our country's water, and although some argue that there are no effects to humans from these residuals in the water, there are documented cases of effects to aquatic species. So, it follows that any excreted bi-products/excess chemicals from these elk would enter into the parks' streams, which are the drinking water source for animals, as well as habitat for others. There might not be any immediate "trickle down" effects, but over time, we might be putting all native populations at risk. I certainly hope someone thinks more in the way of how the natural environment and progression of things works before they try to put some sort of a chemical "solution" into the mix!

I don't know about elk, but birth control on deer was a failure when tried. Turned out the males just stayed in rut and caused more damage. The explosion in deer has been costly to cars from the increase in deer hits by cars. Elk not being in high population centers are not a problem to cars and do need to have the numbers thinned. The problem with hunts is that they are not year round and generaly take out the biggest rather than the weakest as wolves will do.

Hunts will help in the short term but not in the long run. I agree that wolves will help and the wolves that spread outside the boundaries and kill herds will be killed. That is just nature with humans in the mix.

As to the opinion that hunters cannot take the antlers. why not? They did the work why not a trophy. The meat can go to food banks if accepted then they parks will have to pay for the butchers to butcher the meat.

As to making hunters pay, they generally do pay for hunting permits and special hunts like this have lotteries and money is charged for the special hunting permit, I believe. The hunters can explain further.

Here in Utah at least, elk do indeed conflict with people. Especially on our highways. Driving I-80 east of Salt Lake is almost like driving the Dodge'em cars at Lagoon amusement park. Splattered elk carcasses and car carcasses litter the roadside. And despite a very active hunting population throughout the annual season, elk numbers continue to increase. Maybe ROMO isn't in this fix yet. But public hunting in a national park? No, no, no! Much too dangerous a precedent. Ranger sharpshooters are a MUCH better solution.

The intent to create a capsulized eco system with imaginary boarders is not reality. Today in the lower 48 we have no chance of creating and sustaining a "Natural Environment" migration routes, patterns and elevation will not allow enough property to be set aside. Mainly because the adjacent property in most cases in already developed and we can't relocate a town of humans.

Experiments with nature are dangerous, unpredictable and expensive. In a time when we will be short on funds we need to look for more practical was of managing our National wonders. I have lived for over 5 decades, adjacent to one of these wonders. I am frustrated every year that man and his influence or activity is never considered in the equation? Yet we are here, I feel a dose of reality is needed. We will never be able to recreate a true wilderness area, so why don't we start managing them with a little more logic instead of pure emotion and science alone.

I support that heritage hunting be introduced in National Parks, were herd reduction is necessary. Using Man as our predator has many advantages over wolfs. Man can be introduced into an area quickly, he can be better controlled for what sex, size and species to harvest. He can also be removed from an area just as quick. Best of all man predators also fund themselves, so they would be little to no expense to park budgets. To allow hunting is to allow a heritage skill that allowed man to survive and populate the country. If we loose these skills, we to could be in danger. We need to insure that man maintains his or her survival skills, and that future generations are not dependent on surviving on Mac Donald's and Wal-mart super stores alone.

when we get the opertunity to hunt we go for the bigest and best. large rack , large and healthy excetera . this is best for us but worst for wildlife. we would never shoot a weeker target we harvest the best leaving the sick criopel and small to survive . the other apex preditors select the week and dieing as pray . we are not competing with them there nitch is diferant than ares . the wolf is constinatly thining the herd of the sick and are necessary for sustaning a helthey herd. i hunt elk where well established wolfs and grizzleys exist the hunt is nt eazy but quite doible if wolf populations get higher we have the opption to hunt them and should do so . nature is trickey but man is smart enough to be good stewards .

Elk Angel: I have a concern with your post. Why, exactly, can a town of humans not be relocated? Is it because we/they are too content/lazy and don't want to do what's right to minimize these problems? There are too many people who think they're entitled to ignoring precious ecosystems because it's too much of a hassle for them. I find it difficult that people can and do travel thousands of miles by car and millions of miles by plane each year and move dozens of times in their lifetimes yet are unable move a whole human establishment to do what's right for the rest of the environment. The problem with humans is we feel that we can own everything and it's up to other creatures to adjust to our appetite for more land and more development.

On my first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, I was absolutely amazed at the number of elk. I have been numerous times since then and have never failed to see the animals. In the winter even Estes Park has them roaming downtown. I hate that any have to be killed.

I live and hunt in colorado, i am only 17 years old, for school i have done several reaserch papers on this topic. from my own experiences and the reserch i have done, i belive the best way to deal with this problem is to allow hunters to harvest the elk. it does not cost the park any money, better yet adds funds to the park budget by selling tags. in response to wayne bundy, i would be willing to harvest the amaller, weake elk, the mere chanch to harvest one would be enough for me, i have been bowhunting elk for 6 years, my father 25 years, and neither of us has yet to harvest one, so i would be willing to take any elk, weak or strong, one is betterthan none. So what i am proposing is that they open it up to youth hunters with the supervision of wildlife officers. this creates and promotes hunting within our youth.