The National Park Service long has been empowered by Congress to manage the resources that lie within the National Park System, whether the focus is cultural, historical, or natural resources such as wildlife. Even wildfire is a management concern for the agency.
But what role should politics play in that decision-making approach, which is supposed to be based on "best available science"?
That's an increasingly important question as more and more attempts are mounted to tell the Park Service how things should be managed. In Yellowstone National Park politicians in Washington were calling the shots on snowmobile use. In North Cascades National Park politicians tried to force the park to stock non-native fish in naturally barren lakes. In other parks where science found that personal watercraft were damaging resources and so shouldn't be permitted, Interior officials forced the Park Service's hand.
Should the goal be to have the 391 units of the National Park System managed collectively as much as possible, with a general, overriding philosophy, or should there be 391 legislatively mandated management approaches? And what of the dangers of blurring the lines between the special places national parks are, places where conservation and preservation are the guiding stars, and national forests and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands, where multiple uses -- hunting, recreation, logging and mining -- are encouraged?
The most recent case of political intrusion -- some would call it interference -- into the Park Service's science-based management approach comes in North Dakota, where U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan is working hard to legislate a "common sense" elk hunt in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. His successful move to attach a rider to the Interior appropriations bill to force the park to stage such a hunt in the name of elk reduction seemingly runs contrary not only to the National Park Organic Act of 1916 and the Redwood Amendment of 1978 but also the Park Service's 2006 Management Policies.
Too, the senator's actions conflict with the National Environmental Policy Act, which specifically directs that the public have an opportunity to comment and have input on Park Service management decisions. If he's successful -- the entire Senate could vote on the appropriations bill as soon as next week -- those folks who took the time to comment during the park's preparation of the environmental impact statement will not have their voices heard.
“I think that’s a very important issue to bring up," Theodore Roosevelt Superintendent Valerie Naylor replied Thursday when asked whether science or politics should guide the decision-making process. "I think it’s important that any decisions we make are based on sound science. We talk about that a lot in the government.
"We have probably the best data of any park on an elk herd. We have very solid information about their movements, about what they eat, where they go, the size of the herd, activity levels, all of that," she continued. "Very solid information. Our environmental impact statement is very carefully written. It is thorough, it is accurate, and we’ve put a lot of energy and time into it to make it a very good and readable document.”
That draft Environmental Impact Statement identified six approaches to culling the elk herd, which started out with 47 animals released in the park's South Unit in 1985 but which now has grown to more than 900. Those options range from continuing the current management effort and rounding up and killing elk to rounding up and relocating elk as well as turning to birth control options.
So far, no preferred alternative has been identified.
Now, there are various dangers in legislating Park Service decisions. In some cases public wishes are overridden, in others Park Service decisions are cast aside, regardless of the science and common sense they're based upon. In others, precedents might be set that would open the door to similar activities being permitted elsewhere in the National Park System.
"If (Senator) Dorgan is successful, he will establish another frontier for hunting in the parks," said Tony Jewett, vice president of regional operations for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Indeed, Bill Whitworth, chief of resource management at Theodore Roosevelt, worries about the rippling effects across the National Park System if the senator is successful.
"There is a strong lobby out there to expand that use of firearms essentially to a hunting situation," he said Thursday. "Most hunting advocates, most gun advocates, certainly support the use of firearms in many applications."
"... Any time you whittle away at the core mission of an agency, it’s certainly a concern," Ranger Whitworth added. "The Park Service was not intended to be a multiple-use kind of land-base. Some of the other agencies have a much stronger recreational mandate, multiple-use, consumptive use of resource type of mission. The Park Service is largely a preservation organization. Any time you whittle away at that it’s certainly a concern.”
A few other parks have grappled with elk populations. In Grand Teton National Park, Congress authorized an annual hunt. But the hunt is not used to cull the herd, which numbers around 11,000, but rather to maintain a desired population level. Too, the hunt is staged in an area close to the National Elk Refuge, one in which hunting can be constrained away from the rest of the park.
Senator Dorgan believes Theodore Roosevelt officials should mimic Grand Teton's approach to hunting elk, and believes one of the approaches considered by Theodore Roosevelt officials -- using helicopters to roundup elk and then relocate them -- would be a waste of time and money.
"I've been pushing the National Park Service for more than two years to come up with a common sense plan to thin the elk herd after I saw that they were considering hiring federal sharpshooters and using helicopters to transport the meat out of the park," the senator said last week after the Senate Appropriations Committee attached his amendment to the Interior appropriations bill.
The Democrat also has been critical of the park's decision to retain a New Jersey consultant to help develop its draft environmental impact statement on the question of elk culling. "It's beyond me why the National Park service would pay over a quarter of a million dollars to a New Jersey company for advice on elk overpopulation in North Dakota, especially when a common-sense solution using qualified hunters will cost taxpayers nothing," he said.
But is the senator's approach truly one of common sense?
Ranger Whitworth said his park's landscape and elk behavior are much different than those of Grand Teton or Rocky Mountain and so it would be more complicated and costly to effectively reduce the herd size by hunting as Sen. Dorgan proposes.
"The elk here are very secretive. They’re not like Rocky Mountain National Park elk or Yellowstone elk that you’ll often see feeding along the side of the road all the time," he explained. "These elk are secretive. If they see you, they’ll move. They’re shy. They’re wild elk in every sense of the word.”
This secretiveness, combined with Theodore Roosevelt's rugged landscape, not only makes a hunt complicated, but it also makes it highly unlikely that a hunt would effectively cull the elk populations, he said.
“Out here in the badlands it’s extremely difficult to walk around, the road system is minimal. We have a loop road essentially," he said. "To get to where the elk are oftentimes requires a good deal of hiking.”
Imagine a fall weekend in the park, a weekend in which hunters' rigs are parked along the loop road and the countryside is dotted with orange-jacketed hunters and the occasional crack of a rifle echoes across the land.
"It definitely would (generate) user conflicts, because a lot of people come to the national park specifically during hunting season because they don’t have to worry about hunters," said Superintendent Naylor. "And so those people would then be kind of displaced from the sanctuary that they’ve come to expect.
"And I also expect there would be quite a bit of disruption to other wildlife during that time of year. We do have bison in the park, which most parks don’t have. And we do have feral horses, which are much-loved by the public," she said. "They I’m sure would be disrupted as well, along with all the other wildlife.”
And because of that landscape, and the shy elk, for a hunt to come anywhere close to culling the size of Theodore Roosevelt's elk herd, it would have to run for a couple of months and the hunter success rate would have to be amazingly high, added Ranger Whitworth. And don't forget that the park also has bison and feral horses, he adds, speculating that some of the horses would be mistaken for elk and shot if a hunt were allowed.
"We need to bring the herd down from 900-some animals right now to between 100 and 400, If you’re culling off 200 animals per year out of the park through a hunt, in the spring you’re going to a couple hundred new calves come into the system, so the net effect of that previous hunt is minimal, if that," the ranger said. "We need to be able to drop down and get ahead of production. …To do that you have to have either a higher success rate or more hunters in the park in a shorter period of time."
There's also the matter of cost. While a helicopter roundup and relocation would cost about $15,000, Ranger Whitworth said, it likely would cost the park between $150,000-$200,000 each year to manage the hunt, which he said is about what Grand Teton officials spend on their hunt.
“When we’re asked to implement an alternative that’s 10 times more expensive, then we feel it’s right to speak up," he said. "I don’t know why those people who are advocating a hunt are not looking at the cost issue, but it’s real. And efficiency wise, we’ve done roundups for decades for bison on horses and we know how to do them, and they’re predictable costs, and they’re virtually guaranteed of getting the right results.
“We know that when we get two helicopters out there we’ll have the majority of elk in the pens in three days,” the ranger said.
At Sen. Dorgan's Washington, D.C., office, the Democrat's staff could not immediately say Thursday how many years it would take hunters to reduce the park's elk herd to a more manageable level of 100-400 animals; couldn't speak to the safety of park visitors who come to Theodore Roosevelt to hike, picnic, or watch wildlife, and; wouldn't comment on whether legislating management decisions is an appropriate way to manage the national parks.
At the NPCA's Washington headquarters, Kristen Brengel, the group's director of legislative and government affairs, said the Park Service should have the final say on how best to manage the elk at Theodore Roosevelt.
"Are we going to uphold the Management Policies or are we going to let a congressman run roughshod over the parks?" she said. "We have a park system. Part of establishing these places was so people could enjoy the atmosphere, the scenery, the wildlife, all the natural resources.
"And what starts to homogenize the parks with other public lands is when you have stuff like this, when you have a park starting to appear to be managed like national forests, where people are allowed to hunt," continued Ms. Brengel. "You’re starting to not follow the policies and the Organic Act but also you’re homogenizing these places. There are many efforts to homogenize the parks, and they mostly happened during the Bush administration. It’s upsetting that this Congress is making steps in that direction.”