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Managing Elk at Theodore Roosevelt National Park – The NPS has Released Its Plan


Elk on the Ridgeline Nature Trail at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. NPS photo by Nathan King.

How to deal with too many elk at Theodore Roosevelt National Park has been more than a bit controversial, with a North Dakota Senator weighing into the debate with some serious political muscle. The NPS has just released its preferred alternative for managing elk in the park.

The National Park Service (NPS) has released a preferred alternative addressing elk management at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The proposal calls for reducing the elk herd in the park from the current level of about 900 animals to a sustainable level between 100 and 400 animals using qualified NPS staff to lead teams that include skilled volunteers.

Skilled volunteers may include North Dakota sportsmen – who must demonstrate proficiency with firearms and meet other requirements established by the park – will be used to assist park staff in the removal process. In addition, to the extent practicable, animals will be tested for Chronic Wasting Disease. If the animals test negative, the meat will be donated in accordance with federal regulations and National Park Service policy.

The program will be evaluated after two years to determine if direct reduction is effective; if it is not then other methods will be considered to supplement the efforts of the skilled volunteers.

“This approach gets the herd down to a size that park resources can sustain, allows us to test animals for Chronic Wasting Disease, and gives us the flexibility we must have to better manage all of the park’s wildlife over time,” said Acting National Park Service Director Dan Wenk. “We are grateful to all of those across North Dakota and the country who offered comments and invite them to review our preferred alternative and let us know what they think.”

This preferred alternative is the product of a public planning process that generated nearly 300 comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement on the elk management plan between December 17, 2008, and March 19, 2009. The preferred alternative reflects an analysis of those comments, as well as costs, efficiency, and environment impacts and uses a suite of options contained in Alternative B (direct reduction with firearms by federal employees and skilled volunteers), Alternative C (roundup and euthanasia), and Alternative D (roundup and translocation).

"The importance of public participation throughout this process cannot be overstated,” said Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor. “We are getting closer to a final decision on elk reduction, one that will be reached only after we thoroughly evaluate the public comments we receive on this preferred alternative.”
It is anticipated that the plan will be finalized by December 2009 and implementation will begin in fall 2010.

You can view or download the preferred alternative and the environmentally preferable alternative at this site. You can also request a copy from the park by calling 701-623-4466 or by writing to: Superintendent, Attn: Elk Management Plan, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, PO Box 7, Medora, North Dakota, 58645.

Comments on the plan will be accepted for 30 days, through September 9, 2009

It will be interesting to read the reaction to the recommendations from various groups. As might be expected, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) was quick to take credit for the outcome. His office released a statement, noting in part:

U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) announced today that the National Park Service has finally agreed to a common-sense plan to thin the elk herd in Theodore Roosevelt National Park – that will use volunteer hunters to thin the herd under the supervision of the Park Service.

Dorgan has been pushing the Park Service to adopt the plan ever since news broke more than two years ago that the agency was considering a number of alternatives including using professional sharpshooters and helicopters – at significant cost to American taxpayers – to cull the elk.

He said today’s announcement by the Park Service is a victory for North Dakota hunters who have shown a willingness to help the national park thin its elk herd, which is growing too large and threatening to damage park habitat.

“This is a good solution that will save taxpayers money, and allow qualified North Dakota hunters to play a part in this elk management plan,” Dorgan said. “This process has followed a long and tortured trail, but I appreciate the willingness of the new Secretary of Interior and the head of the National Park Service to settle upon a common-sense solution to this issue.”

Last month, Dorgan added a provision to the Interior Appropriations bill to solve the issue. His provision would require the Park Service to use qualified hunters to thin the elk herd.

In a letter to Dorgan today, the National Park Service clarified that after the elk carcasses have been harvested by volunteers, ownership of the meat would be turned over to the state of North Dakota or another approved organization. “If the state then wanted to give some of the meat to the volunteers that helped in the removal effort, that would be their decision,” wrote the Park Service. Dorgan said he will work with state officials to ensure the meat is in fact turned over to the volunteer hunters who want to retain it.

Dorgan has pushed the Park Service to save the taxpayers’ money and use some common sense in thinning the elk herd. This solution will help save taxpayers’ money and give qualified hunters an opportunity pitch in to help thin the elk herd.”

“This is a victory for common sense,” said Dorgan.

Others may see Senator Dorgan's approach a bit differently.

The NPS was faced with a delicate balancing act in developing the plan, and it will be interesting to see how the process plays out in the months ahead.


This is the best way to go about this problem we have in the park, let the volunteer hunters in. I think Jeanie and others that think hunting is such a terrible thing need to stop being such hippy-liberals and pick up a gun and go hunting! If you think poor Bambi is being shot by hunters your pathetic because hunting is nothing like killing a poor little baby deer. It's about passing on the tradition of hunting through our generations, taking our kids hunting whether they are our own kids or kids who are too unfortunate to have a real father in their life to take them out or a kid that just wants to get out into the outdoors to hunt and experience it. I once heard a professional hunter say to kids on his TV show "Hunting and successfully taking an animal will give you a rush, a feeling that no drug can give you." and he is right! Everyone that has felt this knows exactly how it feels and what he is talking about. It brings family members closer together to experience something like that together, whether it's their first animal taken together or their 100th animal taken together. This paln to bring in volunteer hunters is excellent! Let the successful volunteer hunters take home the meat too! Not donate the meat like says to "the indians on the reservation", we give them enough and besides these hunters volunteered to go out and help reduce the elk. They deserve to take home the meat. Our past generations lived and survived all those years by hunting these same animals as we do today. Some of you that say let nature take it's course and bring the wolves in because us hunters are inhuman and we kill poor little Bambi and what not, need to open up your eyes and maybe even watch a video on how wolves hunt! Most prey that wolves take down are still alive while one wolf has it's neck, one wolf has it's nose, and then the others go right in and start ripping them apart, they don't wait for their prey to die peacefully. And you think this a better way for elk or any other animal to die more human than being harvested by us hunters? Then when the wolves are over populated you'll scream bloody murder when they try to reduce the wolves. Some wolves will get out of the park and start packs outside the park and they will take pretty much anything down to survive. When ranchers go and shoot these predators after their livestock gets attacked you'll once again scream bloody murder because these ranchers were protecting their way of life and the way they support their families from what some of you thought would be a better way to help reduce the elk in the park. I could go on and on with this subject but I think I have made a strong enough point here.

The Private:
What makes these high priced professional "sharp shooters" Professional sharp shooters? All I can think of is that 1) they get paid so I guess that makes them professionals; and 2) they haven't managed to shoot themselves, if that is what it takes to be a sharp shooter. If anyone can correct me on this I would be more than happy to stand corrected. I just noticed that I fit this description when I was in the army. I'm so not inpressed by that title. But I still will volunteer myself to help with this problem.

I'd assume they would have a track record.

Here's White Buffalo, Inc, which was contracted to reduce the fallow and axis deer populations at Point Reyes National Seashore. The photo they use on this page looks like Point Reyes. I can see Drakes Estero in the background. I wasn't aware that they're also a registered non-profit.

Their staff seems to be wildlife specialists, although I'm not sure who their sharpshooters are. I understand at Point Reyes they used skilled marksmen who shot from helicopters using night vision.

What makes these high priced professional "sharp shooters" Professional sharp shooters? All I can think of is that 1) they get paid so I guess that makes them professionals; and 2) they haven't managed to shoot themselves, if that is what it takes to be a sharp shooter. If anyone can correct me on this I would be more than happy to stand corrected. I just noticed that I fit this description when I was in the army. I'm so not inpressed by that title. But I still will volunteer myself to help with this problem.

Even if you hire professionals, you still have to supervise them. That is because they are not from that park. They also charge for ammo and a number of other things. The volunteers will gladly pay for their own ammo, transportation, and any other cost they need to cover to do this. Also they will not assume to know better than the staff. Most of us just want to know what hoops we have to jump through to do this, which we will be happy to do.

This is a victory for common sense if management of the volunteers is simple, direct and light-handed. However, if it is heavy-handed and over-regulated, common sense will have been compromised in the deal. Responsible adults who volunteer should be screened for basic proficiency with a rifle, trained on the rules of engagement, and trusted to act ethically in accord with the rules of this non-typical outdoor opportunity. Assign park service personnel to supervise and oversee the activity in the field, and manage the process like any other large scale field operation. I think everyone will be satisfied with the efficiency, effectiveness and integrity of skilled volunteers who genuinely want to help solve a problem in an ethical manner. North Dakotans are by nature an honest lot. They do the right thing more often than not. They can be trusted to do the right thing in the field. They understand the long term consequences of actions better than most. Light oversight and simple rules to manage their activity afield should be the order of the day. Only then, will common sense have prevailed.

We have already messed with nature and are trying to restore some balance. Although my frst choice would be to introduce predators such as wolves, I realize that they, themselves, would probably be annihilated again by man. I do not hunt and hate the thought of Bambi being shot, but it seems a far less cruel fate than starving to death. The long, painful process of starvation is what faces the overpopulated elk herd. I have seen this problem where I live in northern Michigan. I applaud the National Park Service and Senator Dorgan for the solution they have come up with to this sad problem.

Everyone is assuming that using volunteer hunters to cull the elk will be cheaper than paying professional hunters. Given the cost of training, regulating, and supervising the volunteer hunters so that the right animals in the right areas are culled, earlier estimates were that it would cost more to use volunteers than professionals.

I don't know what the current cost estimates are, but the "common sense" that volunteers are free or at least cheaper isn't necessarily true if the object is to do the job right.

If there was a balance of prey, predator and land there would not be a problem.

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