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.