What's the Best For Elk In Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

Are we making the best decisions for managing elk in our national parks? Photo of elk on trail to Mount Chiquita in Rocky Mountain National Park by Donna Childress.

On a recent Monday, as I was hiking near treeline in a quiet part of Rocky Mountain National Park, I rounded a corner to see a gigantic bull elk. He hadn’t seen me, but ran down the open hillside to a creek, where he pawed at the water and thrashed at it with his antlers, sending up silver curves of droplets and a splashing sound through the small valley. He then slowed to drink.

As I grabbed my camera and clicked off a couple of shots, I noticed he wasn’t alone. On the trail ahead of me were two more bulls, smaller than the first, looking intently in my direction. I snapped a couple more shots then put the camera away, to spare the elk and me its artificial clicking sound and to let me fully enjoy the moment.

While the two bulls and I continued to gaze at each other, another poked its head around a bend in the trail that was between us, only 30 feet away. He halted, and commenced staring at me. After a moment, I saw a flicker of an expression that I recognized from home in D.C. Suddenly, I got it—although there was grass around me, I was blocking the trail. His trail.

Slowly, I backed up to a cluster of trees behind and to my right. The elk continued to stare for a few more minutes, then looked away and moved into the evergreens to the left, dropping his head and grazing quietly.

Soon, another face topped by antlers appeared at the trail’s bend, and the same dance ensued. One by one, five bull elk, one a half-grown calf, stood at the trail’s bend and regarded me for several minutes each before stepping into the trees behind the leader. Never before had I such a strong feeling that I had walked uninvited into someone’s living room. Only the granddaddy failed to appear at the bend; he lay down in the cool stream for a long soak, his giant antlers poking above the tundra.

After the entire inspection team slipped into the trees, the largest bull stopped plucking grass, lifted his head and stared at me again. I could clearly see his broad, bony face and the fierce white whiskers under his chin, and I could sense his power. He had about him the look of lawlessness, of energy and defiance. After a long spell of examining me, he grunted. I replied quietly, “It’s okay,” and I showed him my palms, by then holding onto my extended trekking poles that, with my wits and the trees, were my only defense should he turn angry.

And immediately he dismissed me, going back to his breakfast and wandering after the herd. Perhaps he was wondering why there were tears coursing down the face of this strange animal with the odd red-and-black fur, the black square eyes and the blue humped back. They were tears of inexplicable emotions upon seeing such beautiful wild creatures up close, but surely they couldn't appreciate that.

I was wondering how to explain, without it sounding trite, the magnificence of these animals, how to put into words the size of them, bigger than any horse I’ve ever ridden, and how it felt to interact with them for those few moments, across the boundaries of species and worlds. How it felt, most importantly, to touch their wildness. I found it easy to pinpoint my sorrow that while these elk appear strong and free, they are vulnerable to changes in the climate, pollution and policy decisions being made by humans they will never see, and who will never see them.

As if on cue, two days later I received an action alert from the National Parks Conservation Association saying that the elk in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park were too healthy in number, and that NPCA would like me to ask the Park Service, as a temporary measure, to cull the herd by gun while working for a long-term solution, which also involves hunting but on lands outside the park.

I understand that a strained ecosystem ultimately will result in pain for the elk and other species, and that we must address the issue. Yet I have to wonder if some of the other options originally proposed, or some other not fully explored options still are better for the elk, and even why we’re not considering a more natural approach of reintroducing predators.

The elk are overpopulated because human activities have thrown nature out of balance. This is not their fault; it is ours, and we are choosing to solve the problem by shooting them. It is one thing for an elk to be killed to feed a wolf or a mountain lion or a hungry human. It is another thing altogether for humans to choose killing that elk as the easiest solution to a human-induced problem. Is this truly the best solution for the elk? Or is it simply the one we like the best for reasons of politics, finances or convenience? Have we fully explored all alternatives that might allow us to solve this issue without sending in a small army? I don’t have all the answers, but I think about those bulls, and I want us to make these decisions with the greatest thought and consideration for them.

Back in Rocky Mountain National Park, after the group nonchalantly noshed and moved away and granddad steeped in his tub, I headed on to the summit of Mount Chiquita and the views of mountains for miles around. On my way back that afternoon, far below the place where I first had seen the elk, I spotted motion in the distance. There were three bulls grazing. The largest raised his head and looked toward me. I showed him my palm and waved. He dropped his head back to his forage, and I proceeded to my car and what we call civilization, reluctantly away from the wilderness.

Comments

The sentiments expressed in this article are very nice, poetic and idealistic. In reality, elk populations in our national parks are just a managed game animal, as cattle are on a big ranch. Elk just happens to attract big spending tourists who live in big cities perpetuating "what we call civilization". Management requires maintenance of a stable, healthy population in which all aspects of mortality are considered. Increased 'harvesting' happens to be a decent revenue gainer and far less complicated than wolves present in numbers large enough to make a difference. Not to mention what these predators would resort to when the elk population was reduced (predator populations have to be managed also, with human based solutions, i.e Alaskan wolves).
So, wilderness means "a place much less comfortable than one's city abodes", but it no longer, and never will, mean " a place without human intervention". Be glad that these places exist to give people a respite from there civilized city dwelling and don't fret over how elk meet their end or romantic ideals of "wilderness" ethics.

I was wondering how to explain, without it sounding trite, the magnificence of these animals, how to put into words the size of them, bigger than any horse I’ve ever ridden, and how it felt to interact with them for those few moments, across the boundaries of species and worlds. How it felt, most importantly, to touch their wildness.

You did a great job of explaining. You are quite a writer.

While I agree with your concern for the humane treatment of these elk, and I abhor shooting them, you must consider the alternative (that is presumed by this amateur as the reason for this proposed action): the torture and slow death of starvation. While we must work on better solutions, these will take time, too much time for the elk of today.

Very interesting article and first comment. Both demonstrate the humanization of the wild, but not much knowledge of the ecological complexities that make the system work. I would like to ask Donna how many small Willows she noticed where the Bull Elk lay to rest. My guest would be not many. They are a favorite Elk food and have been desimated. Along with the Willows went the Beaver, Otter and the park water table. This is the reason the National Park Service recommended managing the Elk. On the other hand, Rocky Mountain Park is not the Ponderosa Ranch. Ranger/Cowboys shooting across the plains miss the lesser noticable Elk that are in the thickets. The rangers will only keep the Elk away from the Willows the small time they are there. The eco-damage is being done in the wetlands 24/7. I would highly recommend reading "Where the Wild Things Were" by William Stolzenburg. This comment borrowed greatly from his chapter on Yellowstone. In his book he documents the willows problem and a solution found in Yellowstone. I salute fellow naturalist and there help understanding the ecosystems.

I live in western central ND and I can tell you that the ND Game and Fish already have hunting in the areas of the TRNP, north and south units, just not in the units. There are some natural predators, such as mountain lions, that live in the area as well, so much so that there's actually a hunting season for them as well. I am a conservationist, but I'm also a hunter. I see both sides. If a population is too large and there aren't enough natural predators, the only way for the animals to go, besides being killed by a hunter, is by a slow painful death caused either by low food supply and/or a harsh winter. Last winter was very bad, but amazingly it didn't effect deer numbers or elk numbers as bad as was originally thought. This coming winter, according to the Farmers Almanac, is supposed to be even worse.

I see nothing wrong with the Dept. of Game and Fish either putting out more licenses or finding the weak and sick elk and removing them from the herd population. Knowing that they could die a slow rough death from starvation or killed by winters frosty grips is quite heartbreaking. I love wildlife, always have from a very young age, growing up n ND and in the cascade region of WA. I know that the reason most animals are in parks is to keep them safe from our growing numbers and cities and the danger that are posed by both, when it's because of us and our ancestors that they are there in the first place.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is not very big. I can see it becoming over-populated quite easily. Also, it's in North Dakota. Have you been there before? Other than that park, there is NOTHING to see except sunflowers. Let the good farmers of North Dakota enjoy the opportunity of putting 100% natural meat on their table, eh?

The writer of this article is very idealistic and unrealistic at the same time. Welcome to the top of the food chain. Elk is tasty! You really ought to try it.

We've learned a lot about how to control these populations, and I trust the Dept. of Fish and Game to take care of it.

This comment was edited to remove a gratuitous comment.--ed.

Other than that park, there is NOTHING to see except sunflowers.

And some of the most critical migratory waterfowl habitat in North America - in potholes, reservoirs, and lakes across the state. North Dakota has a lot to offer if you're inclined to look at nature with ecology-tinted glasses. Which leads to this:

I don’t have all the answers, but I think about those bulls, and I want us to make these decisions with the greatest thought and consideration for them.

This is not how we need to approach natural resource management, conservation, or even preservation. On any level, we need to be focusing on ecosystems rather than species. The charismatic megafauna stir the emotions, as in Donna's experience, but we do a disservice to the very animals that inspire our love for nature if we start emotionally separating them from the ecological systems with which they are inseparable. An overpopulation of any grazing ungulate is disastrous for an ecosystem (reference whitetail deer here in Michigan) and the remedy has to be prescribed with the greatest thought and consideration for the health of the ecosystem, not the resident species of greatest popularity.

These moments that define our connection with nature, our Biophilia, as E.O. Wilson calls it, are a treasure of being human. But they must be a catalyst for an intellectual approach to conservation of ecosystems.

Like Donna, I don't have the answers, but I do think the proper questions are clear. "What is best for the badlands and grasslands of western North Dakota?" should trump "What is best for the elk?" The answer to the latter is simply, "See question #1"

Thank you to everyone who has commented on the post - I like hearing your perspectives, and am glad that so much thought has been given to this topic.

I want to second Kirby's point, that the ecosystems in which the elk live are important. I agree wholeheartedly. I intended for the post to convey that we should do something about the overpopulation, not that the elk should take over at the expense of the ecosystem or be allowed to multiply until they ate their way to starvation, in writing this:

I understand that a strained ecosystem ultimately will result in pain for the elk and other species, and that we must address the issue.

I also wanted to raise the question of whether the method of control proposed is in the best interest of the elk (in balance with the ecosystem) or simply the best solution for humans.

For example, the Park Service proposed several alternatives in its draft Environmental Impact Statement, including relocation and birth control. I recognize that pursuing these options may or may not be possible at this time, and that shooting the elk may be the only answer, at least for now.

But I believe that when we are looking at killing something as a long-term solution, it's important to ask the question of who benefits. In this way, we can move closest to making the best decisions for what lives in our parks.

As the author alluded, one of the options that has been considered to help balance the elk population of Rocky Mountain NP is the reintroduction of wolves. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone some 14 years ago, the benefits to the park's environment were quickly seen: "Changes in elk grazing behavior have allowed streambed vegetation like willow and aspen to recover from years of overbrowsing, and these re-established trees provide habitat for native birds and fish, beaver, and other species." (Cite: http://www.defenders.org/programs_and_policy/wildlife_conservation/imperiled_species/wolves/wolf_recovery_efforts/northern_rockies_wolves/background_and_recovery/index.php) Meanwhile, populations of elk and other species that wolves prey upon have continued to thrive.

Of course, wolf reintroduction carries its own set of controversies. Not everyone is happy to find wolves in the wilderness, even in our national parks. But I, for one, would much rather see the "excess" elk become food for wolves and other predators than to see them picked off by sharpshooters. If we must manage our wilderness, let's use nature's tools instead of just our own.

To distill a whole bunch of research (google "ecology of fear" wolves sharks) into a couple of sentences:

Wolves in Yellowstone don't kill large numbers of elk, but the presence of wolves makes the elk stay away from the stream beds where they are more vulnerable to wolves. The per elk impacts on riparian willows (and thus beavers & trout) are greatly reduced. [William Ripple and several others.]

The same thing happens with sharks & dugongs, dolphins, seals, & maybe turtles in Shark Bay Australia: in seasons when the sharks are present, the dugongs & turtles stay away from the seagrass beds with the more nutritious seagrass species where they're vulnerable to sharks, and forage on the edges of beds near deeper water where they are safer but the seagrass is less nutritious. [Mike Heithaus & his students; I suspect there is some cool video on his website or maybe by searching Heithaus on youtube.]

Because they've moved to lower quality habitat away from streams more elk die of starvation (directly and indirectly) and fewer elk are born, so the population size of elk is reduced from what it would have been without wolves. But, for population dynamics, the alternative is a much larger population of elk, large enough to again increase death from starvation and reduce fecundity, and greatly impact the vegetation and the rest of the ecosystem in the process.

What I don't know about (and I think no one knows about) is what the elk response to wolves would be in Theodore Roosevelt NP: would the elk be chased out of the areas that are most sensitive to elk overgrazing & trampling, or do the areas where elk are most vulnerable to wolves not align with the most sensitive areas as they do in Yellowstone? Until we know that, introducing wolves might possibly make the elk impacts on the ecosystem worse instead of less.

I feel sorry for you buddy. You seem to think that we are on a level above nature and that we should be able to alter natural habbitats at will. This is the precise state of mind that has driven hundreds of species into extinction already. I don't know if you are aware of this but natural habbitats have existed without the help of mankind for billions of years before our arrival. The bureau of land managment has passed legislation that gives authority to park management to deal with these types of problems at a scientific level. Now when i say a scientific level I am reffering to biological and ecological research and solutions, not those who want to shoot up the countryside and continue to drive endangered species into extinction. Next time why don't you try doing a little research before you put your foot in your mouth.

This comment was edited. -- Ed.