With elk culling scheduled to resume in Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit next week, park officials say some backcountry areas and hiking trails will be closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays into December.
Too many elk and too little habitat led park officials a year ago to decide to use volunteers to cull the herd across the 46,159-acre South Unit.
Park officials hope this approach will reduce the elk numbers, which a year ago were 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 year's culling operation is scheduled to begin October 18 and run through December 22. As a result, backcountry areas and hiking trails in the South Unit will be closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during that period.
“For safety reasons, we are closing the South Unit’s backcountry and hiking trails three days per week while teams are shooting elk in the park to reduce the herd,” said Superintendent Valerie Naylor. “We regret having to close any portion of the park at any time. However, this is necessary to ensure visitor safety and to enhance the effectiveness of the elk reduction teams.”
This is the second year of the park’s elk reduction effort, which is conducted so that the backcountry areas and trails in the South Unit are open Friday – Monday when visitation is highest. The South Unit’s roads and overlooks, as well as Cottonwood Campground, will be open daily. The four front-country trails in the South Unit - Buck Hill, Wind Canyon, Ridgeline Nature Trail, and Coal Vein Trail - will also remain open.
The elk reduction is starting two weeks earlier this year and is ending a month earlier. Last year’s elk management action lasted 12 weeks; this year it will be 10 weeks in length. No entrance fees will be charged in the South Unit on the days when the backcountry areas are closed.
“This change in schedule should maximize efficiency of the elk management effort and minimize disruption to park visitors,” said Superintendent Naylor. “The North Unit and Elkhorn Ranch Unit are not affected by the elk reduction effort, and we encourage hikers to enjoy those areas this fall.”
As part of a multi-year elk reduction, five National Park Service team leaders and up to 4 volunteers per team work together to reduce the elk population with firearms. Elk meat is packed out of the park and donated to North Dakota American Indian Tribes, Sportsmen Against Hunger through North Dakota Community Action, and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. The NDGFD donates some of the meat back to the volunteers who assisted with the elk reduction effort.