Theodore Roosevelt National Park Turning to 240 Volunteers To Help Reduce Elk Herd

Culling operations set to begin in November are aimed at trimming Theodore Roosevelt National Park's 900-1000 elk to just 200.

Facing too little habitat and too few predators, elk in Theodore Roosevelt National Park soon will find themselves in the cross-hairs of a three-month-long culling operation that will fan out 240 volunteers across the park's South Unit to shoot elk located by radio collar.

Beginning November 1 and running 12 weeks, five teams comprised by a guide and four volunteer "cullers" will head every week into the 46,159-acre South Unit and spend three days shooting as many cow elk as they can. As the teams kill elk, they'll be responsible for field dressing the carcasses. Packers the Park Service is hiring will then haul the meat out of the field. While the Park Service would "donate" this meat to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, on Fridays the volunteers, depending on their success in the field, in turn would be offered the meat from their kills.

Park officials hope this approach will reduce the elk numbers, currently estimated at between 900 and 1,000, by 500 over the first two years. If that goal isn't achieved, the park, which wants to cap the elk herd at 200 animals under this scenario, would resort to roundups and euthanizing or relocating elk.

The culling operations, controversial with those who view this approach as a process "creeping" towards a public hunt in the national park, are scheduled to run for at least five years and cost the National Park Service upwards of $1.5 million.

This effort at reducing the park's elk herd was chosen over an "environmentally preferable," and much less costly, three-year plan to use helicopter roundups and relocations. It also was developed after U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, called for a public hunt in Theodore Roosevelt.

The final choice to go with volunteer cullers was made not by Park Service officials but rather personnel in Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's office, according to Bill Whitworth, Theodore Roosevelt's natural resources chief.

"The park provided all the options that could have solved the problem either entirely or in a large degree, and that’s what we put into the environmental impact statement," Chief Whitworth said during a telephone conversation Friday. "All those alternatives that were described in there were the options that we had. Now, the one that was eventually selected went up to the secretary level. That’s basically it. ... The one that we’re doing now is clearly not the most efficient method. But that’s not the only criteria that you use to select an action, either.”

So popular was the chosen alternative that more than 5,000 people applied for the role of culler.

While the park has stressed that the three-month-long operation is a "reduction" in elk numbers, not a "hunt," because of its structure -- each day park personnel will drive the teams to the South Unit where they'll use coordinates obtained via radio collars to find elk bands, and there will be no limits on how many elk can be shot -- Sen. Dorgan has been quoted as saying that, "some good, qualified hunters in North Dakota are going to have some good days tromping through the Badlands."

Considered a good idea in 1985, when 47 elk were set free in Theodore Roosevelt with hopes of restoring some of the original wildlife that once stalked this area of North Dakota, the conditions proved overly suitable for the ungulates. As soon as 1993 the park's target elk population of 360 animals for the South Unit was exceeded, and for a while the Park Service tried to balance the reproduction rate by shipping off truckloads of elk to Indian tribes, as well as the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Kentucky for recovery programs there.

Unfortunately, the threat of chronic wasting disease led to a halt in those reduction efforts. Despite increased hunting limits on lands outside the national park, Theodore Roosevelt's elk herds continue to grow. Today park managers are faced with an elk population growing, on average, at an annual rate of 25-26 percent. Whether the park's elk are a reservoir for chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disease, remains to be seen. Testing will be conducted on elk killed during the culling operations.

Had the Park Service opted to implement the environmentally preferable alternative, which would have taken three years to reduce the elk herd to approximately 100 animals, helicopters would have been used to round up elk so they could be relocated to groups outside the park wanting to build elk herds. Under that scenario, roughly 370 elk would have been killed before the roundups got under way to determine whether any of the animals had been infected with chronic wasting disease. This approach would have cost the Park Service an estimated $43,583 per year, or $653,750 over the 15-year life of the reduction plan, vs. $98,112–$99,512 per year, and $1,471,700– $1,492,700 over the 15 years, that the culling operations are estimated to last, according to the park's final environmental impact statement.

While the culling operations will leave behind gut piles and bones from the kills, Chief Whitworth was confident scavengers -- coyotes, mountain lions, badgers, bobcats, for example -- would consume and scatter them before next year's hiking season.

“There’s always going to be that issue. There are the E3 and E4 (hunting) seasons outside the park. They’ve been shooting elk outside the park for some time. Things get cleaned up pretty quick," the chief said. "It’s one of those things. To make it efficient we can’t remove everything. So it’s kind of a compromise. But if that becomes an issue after the first of the year we’ll make adjustments.”

At the National Parks Conservation Association, Tim Stevens said the fact that the volunteers will be offered meat from the elk they kill makes the operation “creep ever closer to a hunt not called a hunt.”

While there is an elk hunt in Grand Teton National Park, one that was written into the park's enabling legislation, and hunting is allowed in units of the National Park System designated as "preserves," there is no other "national park" where hunting is allowed, said Mr. Stevens, adding that the NPCA believes that ban should remain intact.

"As the Theodore Roosevelt decision creeps closer and closer to a small ‘h’ hunt, then we become increasingly nervous about it," he said.

Officials at Rocky Mountain National Park rejected a public hunt when they adopted a plan to resolve their own issue with elk over-population. They currently deploy sharp-shooters to kill elk. At Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, officials hope a mix of hunting outside the park, roundups, and sharp-shooters inside the park will solve their elk problem.

All these issues point to a problem that is becoming more and more visible across the National Park System.

“I think, big picture, increasingly wildlife is stranded on ecological islands such as Theodore Roosevelt National Park," said Mr. Stevens, NPCA's Northern Rockies regional director. "The reality is that this situation didn’t arise overnight. And real long-term solutions are going to take some time to sort out. Unfortunately there’s been no resolution up to this point. But looking forward, it’s absolutely critical that, No. 1, the elk population be reduced, but, No. 2, better solutions be brought to the table.

"And that’s going to take some time and some effort and many shoulders to the wheel, but it’s critical that this (culling) program not be the quote-unquote 'solution' over the long-term, because it’s simply a Band-aide that covers over a much bigger issue that must be addressed.”

Any solution has to involve more elk habitat outside the park, added Mr. Stevens. Returning an apex predator to Theodore Roosevelt, such as wolves, would be impractical, he said.

"Some say we just need to bring predators back there. We’ve heard reintroduce wolves back into Theodore Roosevelt. In our minds it would be a bit of a cruel joke on the wolves," he said, "because you’re dropping them into an area that can’t sustain them. They’re going to get shot up."

Along with the culling operations, Theodore Roosevelt officials will be working with North Dakota officials to enhance hunting opportunities beyond the park's boundaries.

Comments

What a wrong-headed, mean-spirited massacre of animals who should benefit
from a natural system in all National Parks. That's the least we can offer elk,
deer, coyotes, wolves and others when federal and state wildlife agencies act
like apologists for hunters whose license fees are channeled into those departments.

Very little forested lands are off-limits to shooters, and the inclination of hunters
to trophy shoot elk should be restrained by the government that champions this
minority. Hunters are a public nuisance; stop ctaering to them, and please stop
from calling hunting deaths "cullings." It sanitizes violence and gives it a mystique.

If there's not enough food and land to sustain elk, squirrels, or any animals, they'll
die of natural causes. Two-legged hunters subvert nature, and make a misery out
of Park lands that should be managed for the benefit of the animals who have no
choice but to live there in a land overpopulated by Homo sapiens.

Well, Priscilla, there is a regular hunting season for elk in and around the park, but not many people are successful, mostly because of the tough terrain. And with the worry of chronic wasting disease, which is transmissable to other animals such as livestock, the only options is to have a mass hunt to decrease the numbers.

The terrain of the TRNP is rugged and tough, and obviously there is plenty of food and land to sustain elk and other animals that live there, otherwise there wouldn't be these "cullings". And these hunts do not make violence more intriguing and hunters are NOT a public nuisance. If hunters didn't go out and hunt during the specified seasons, there would be overpopulation of many different species of animals and there would be more incidents of people hits animals with their vehicles. Do you think that that's a better way for a huntable species to die? The last couple of winters up here have been tough. Lots of snow and freezing temperatures. That was helpful to reduce numbers, but not helpful enough. So, waiting for nature to take it's course and help the animals die of natural causes isn't enough. Another problem is that there are no natural predators in the TRNP to help decrease the numbers of elk. Sure, there are mountain lions, but the chance of a grown mountain lion taking on a full grown, healthy elk is few and very far between. Coyotes are too small to take on even a baby elk. No natural predators, lots of elk, not enough kills during the regulated hunting season... makes for a herd reduction, a REGULATED and closely supervised reduction!

I live 70 miles away from the TRNP and am a female hunter. I love nature and I love animals, and I think what the NPS is doing is justifiable, through and through. Until there are natural predators introduced, which I have my doubts on happening, this is the ONLY way.

I am also a female hunter and, although justified, I consider this a rather unjustified spending of National Park funds...yes they could have rounded them up and moved them elsewhere, like the areas around Yellowstone that have suffered decimation to benefit a wolf population out of control (another animal that needs to be hunted and now is listed again), or other areas but in the end, the only viable means of control of any animal is by hunting. They could have shut the park down for a couple weeks and sold tags at auction, which is a big payout in other states, and could have made up the money quickly. This is as bad as communities around where I live that pay sharpshooters to hunt deer in suburban areas at $1500.00 a head. The light that hunters are painted in has brought our "conservation' ideals to it's knees. We are the reason these animals exist. The government wouldn't have set aside land, or enabled a self imposed tax to help wildlife, like hunters have in our history. Don't paint us hunters in such a light as to make us out to be the devil. Those animals exist now because of us!

Priscella;

If you do a bit of internet research, you will see the massive (not too strong a word) ecologic contributions by hunters to preserve our wildlife populations. Open your eyes and look with an objective, unbiased look and see how it was Ducks Unlimited which almost singlehandedly championed the preservation of our waterfowl facing extinction in North Amercia. Look at the contribution of sports fisherman championing preservation of our fisheries against the politically overpowerful commercial fishing interests. Look at hunters (Rocky Mountain Elk Moundation), with an internet search of how they have preserved ungulate populations. Our countries sportsmen approach wildlife management from practical scientific viewpoints. This same spirit is so often (usually) missing from the knee jerk responses from armchair commentators who have never had an outdoor experience with a responsible hunting or fishing outdoorsperson. All these mudslingers seem to know is what they've read in some rant, not having ever held a firearm, fishing pole and learned to experience the respect sports people hold nature in.

Sportspeople hold nature in the same spirit as you might picture a Hollywood depiction of a 1800's idealized Native American after a buffalo kill, not as a jaded Hollywood depiction of a drunken, beer guzzling hunter. That's what you'll hear from most Sierra Club members I expect as to the character of sportspeople, and it's just wrong, mean spirited and biased.

The facts are, without hunters and fisherpeople, our wildlife populations would not exist today. look it up on the internet Priscella.

It took NPS years of foot dragging to finally allow this....

Priscilla,

Natural causes is a nice way of saying let them starve to death or be strickened with chronic wasting disease. Elk were brought to TRNP and reintroduced to the area with no natural enemies. If the elk populations go unchecked, mother nature will step in and erradicate the entire population again. Conservation and controlled hunting policies will ensure a healthy herd well into the future.
You are right, we should manage the Park lands for the benefits of animals: Its called population controll

Have they chose the volunteers yet?

Let's keep a bit of perspective here. All the science shows that natural predation creates much healthier herds than does hunting. Unfortunately, I imagine there is way too much public oppposition to the reintroduction of wolves ot TRNP.

Here, again, are numerous examples of people with little knowledge of the situation, or area, spouting off with their illogical ideas.

The South Unit of TRNP is relatively small, surrounded by, mostly, private lands. There is no viable alternative in managing the elk herd, other than human intervention. The area is way to small, with too many people, to consider wolves or grizzlies. (Incidently, lions and coyotes are capable and do regularly take down elk - even adult elk, and this has been documented numerous times.)

The costs associated with this removal of elk is greatly exasperated and exagerated by the NPS. As mentioned above, the NPS could easily have made this a profitable operation by selling public hunts on the park - hunting access for quality elk hunting is easily worth $400 per hunter day.

And to you people who constantly cry how hunting isn't "natural" what do you think it is wolves, lions and other predators do? Humans are a natural part of the ecosystem, as natural as any predator. Humans have been a predator, and have used their brains to develop effective ways to harvest animals, including, through history, driving them off of cliffs and into bogs and lakes, driving them with fire, various traps, bows, atlatls, guns, and about any other method our brainpower would allow us to develop. The net result is, humans are very efficient predators. In the entire scheme of the world, what is the difference if a human kills and eats and elk or if a wolf does, other than the elk goes through an etreme amount of trama and pain as the wolf chases it to exhaustion and then tears out it's hamstrings, before disemboweling the animal.

Why not worry about what happens in your neighborhood, and we'll worry about ours.

Hunting is a great physical activity that brings us all much closer to the real world and should be enjoyed by all.

Anonymous on September 23, 2010 - 8:14am,

RE: Your last three paragraphs.

You're entirely missing the point. National parks are some of the few remaining ecosystems where folks can see (non-human) predators, prey, and their interaction. It's hard to imagine millions of people visiting the parks hoping to catch a glimpse of a hunter shooting an elk.