"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.