Rocky Mountain National Park's Decision Not To Use Wolves To Reduce Elk Upheld By Appellate Court

Rocky Mountain National Park managers acted properly within the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Park Service Organic Act when they decided not to use wolves to reduce the elk population in their park, an appellate court has ruled.

That decision last week stemmed from a lawsuit brought by WildEarth Guardians to compel the Park Service to consider the predators when crafting an "elk and vegetation management plan" for Rocky Mountain. The plan formally adopted by the park in December 2007 settled on "lethal reduction, birth control, herding and adverse conditioning techniques" to reduce the elk population.

At the time the plan was being written, the elk population in Rocky Mountain was pegged at somewhere between 2,200 and 3,100. The park's objective is to keep the winter population between 1,600 and 2,100.

WildEarth Guardians had argued that a small population of wolves could succeed in bringing down the population, and that the park was wrong to use volunteers to help in the culling operations. After a district court upheld the park's plan, the advocacy group appealed the matter to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In reviewing the case, a three-judge panel from the appellate court could find no error in the Park Service's development of the management plan.

"We find the record supports the agency’s decision to exclude consideration of a natural wolf alternative from its environmental impact statement. We also find the agency’s interpretation of the National Parks Organic Act and Rocky Mountain National Park Enabling Act persuasive, and that its elk management plan does not violate those statutes," the judges held in the 31-page ruling (attached below).

In that ruling the judges noted that park officials did consider the use of "a small number of intensively managed wolves" to assist sharpshooters in tamping down the elk numbers. However, the Park Service noted that "this alternative was infeasible due to lack of support from coordinating agencies, concerns by neighboring communities, the high potential for human-wolf conflicts, and the likelihood that management of wolves in the park would be expensive and time-consuming, distracting from the goal of the NPS’s plan—managing elk," the court's ruling pointed out.

WildEarth Guardians reacted to the ruling in part by saying the use of sharpshooters to reduce Rocky Mountain's elk numbers would cost the park's ecosystem.

“Despite the fact that wolves provide enormous ecological benefits to both elk and ecosystems that human sharpshooters simply cannot, the court ruled in favor of the sharpshooters,” said Wendy Keefover, the group's director of carnivore protection. “Wolves would do a far better job of culling the weak, the sick, and consistently moving sedentary elk away from fragile streams. Sharpshooters will never have the same ecological benefits on the landscape.”

“Using tortured reasoning, the Court has set a terrible new precedent for managing our national parks,” added Mike Harris, a law professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, and an attorney for WildEarth Guardians. “Not only did the Court sanction the Park Service’s refusal to consider the most natural of all solutions to the elk problem—wolves—it opened the door to the most unnatural use of the parks by allowing hunters into the Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time in its nearly 100-year existence.”

The use of small populations of wolves to control ungulates in national parks was the subject of a scientific paper published back in 2010. In it a handful of wildlife biologists voiced their opinion that pockets of wolves could be scattered about the National Park System in the Lower 48 states specifically to control burgeoning elk and deer herds.

However, other wildlife experts doubted the plan would work because the parks identified -- Rocky Mountain and Wind Cave were mentioned -- were just too small to contain wolf packs.

"I think it’s possible, but it’s not probable right now," Ben Bobowski, Rocky Mountain's chief of resource stewardship, told the Traveler at the time. "And even if it becomes more likely to happen, it’s not going to happen without a lot of regional support.

"The geography of Rocky is such that we’re very high-elevation, and have limited area for wintering herds of elk. Many of the elk, although we do have a resident population that seems to stay all year long, a good proportion do leave the park (in winter). And we’d expect the predators to follow them outside of the park. So without a tremendous amount of support by all of our neighbors, going all the way down to the Denver area, because wolves have large home ranges, it’s not likely right away."

Too, managing wolves to manage elk would be costly and labor-intensive, he said.

“I think if the expectation is to keep a population at a certain number it’s going to be intensive," says Chief Bobowski. "Either you’re going to have to manage them upfront, through fertility control, or you’re going to have to manage them on the back end, with population control, either through relocation and trapping, or extirpation. So it becomes very intensive and very costly."

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10th Circuit-ROMO Wolves.pdf1.35 MB