If you're heading to Grand Teton National Park this fall, don't be surprised to hear occasional gunshots, as the park's annual elk reduction hunt runs from Thursday into early December.
While most national parks ban hunting, the Grand Teton elk hunt was mandated by Congress as a means of regulating the size of the Jackson elk population. The hunt dates to 1950, when provisions were made for the expansion of Grand Teton National Park.
The size of the reduction is developed in conjunction with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and approved by Wyoming's governor and the Interior Department secretary. Biologists and administrators from both agencies have reviewed available biological data and concluded that the 2012 program is necessary to keep the Jackson elk herd at or near the objective of 1,600 elk.
The need for the park’s elk reduction program stems partly from annual winter feeding programs on the National Elk Refuge just to the southeast of the park and in the upper Gros Ventre drainage. These feed grounds are maintained by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and are also mandated by legislation.
“Feeding sustains high numbers of elk with unnaturally low mortality rates. A majority of elk that are fed during the winter on the fefuge also summer in, or use migration routes through, Grand Teton National Park," said Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs in a press release. "Consequently, the reduction program targets elk from three primary herd segments: Grand Teton, southern Yellowstone National Park, and the Teton Wilderness area of Bridger-Teton National Forest.”
The elk reduction program utilizes Wyoming-licensed hunters who apply for and receive a limited quota permit to hunt in designated areas. Over the years the number of permits issued has been drastically reduced. From 1990 to 2005, an average of 2,500 permits were given out, a portion of which were “either-sex” tags that allowed the shooting of bulls. In 2011, 750 permits were issued and 278 elk were taken. This year the park is only issuing 725 permits and completely eliminating the shooting of bulls.
The use of archery, handguns, or other non-center fire ammunition rifles is banned, as is the use of artificial elk calls. Hunters, regardless of age, also are required to carry a hunter education card. They also must carry readily accessible bear spray as a non-lethal deterrent during potential bear encounters. An information packet warning hunters of the risk of bear encounters and offering tips on how to minimize the probability of human-bear conflicts accompanies each permit.
Hunters are also encouraged to use non-lead ammunition to support practices that will benefit the long-term conservation of all wildlife. In the past three years, park managers have seen a decrease in the use of lead ammunition.
Each hunter is only permitted to take one elk. Occasionally, when an elk is confiscated because of a violation of the hunting regulations, park rangers give the meat to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which in turn gives it to needy families.
Park officials recommend that visitors recreate in areas west of the Snake River that are closed to hunting, and advise visitors to wear hunter orange or other bright colors whenever they enter open hunting zones away from park developed areas. A map is available online that shows where hunting is permitted.
Back in June the Sierra Club urged the park to reassess the culling operation, but a response by Grand Teton Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott closed the door on that option, saying that issues raised by the group had already been addressed.
An article and audio report by Casper’s K2 radio station delves a little deeper into the elk hunt’s impact on grizzly bears, which includes their becoming habituated to eating the remains of elk left by hunters in the backcountry (another potential issue that the superintendent indicated had been adequately considered).