After much debate, discussion, and consideration, elk culling operations are scheduled to get under way in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in November, when the first of 240 volunteers will be guided into the park's South Unit with instructions to kill as many cow elk as they can.
There are, as comments to our story Monday clearly showed, folks who are vehemently opposed to this operation....and there are those who believe there should be an annual elk hunt, not a culling.
Whichever side you stand on, what's disappointing to see is that politics apparently swayed the National Park Service to this plan, one that will be much, much more costly -- roughly $1.5 million over the 15-year life of the program vs. $654,000 -- than the park's environmentally preferred alternative. That plan would have led to the rounding up of elk that would then be shipped -- after they were cleared of being infected with chronic wasting disease -- to other state, federal and local agencies willing to take them to start their own elk herds.
But U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, wanted a public hunt, and the volunteer culling -- an option picked by top Interior Department officials, not Theodore Roosevelt managers -- seems to be a compromise. And while park officials are calling it a culling operation, Sen. Dorgan sure makes it sound more like a hunt when he says, "some good, qualified hunters in North Dakota are going to have some good days tromping through the Badlands."
Regardless, the problem Theodore Roosevelt's managers are confronting -- too much wildlife, too little habitat -- is one spreading across parks, and not just those in the United States. Here's a snippet from a story concerning wildlife in East African parks.
Today, parks and reserves in East Africa, large or small, are islands in a sea of humanity.
They are isolated and wildlife is trapped in habitats that lack the requisite diversity of resources.
Historical migration corridors that predate parks and reserves and that hitherto enabled spatial and temporal distribution of resource utilisation are either threatened or no longer accessible.
Spatial connectivity among currently isolated parks and reserves has the best chance to preserve ecological memory, optimum diversity, and adaptive self-renewal, a key component of ecological resilience.
Resilience in this context is the capacity of parks or reserves to absorb disturbances — drought, floods, habitat degradation, disease epidemics — and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function and structure — savannah, forest, wetland).
Designing spatial connectivity among parks and reserves must take a holistic ecosystems approach.
This means that the location and connectivity of parks and reserves must be based on a dynamic understanding of how wildlife uses landscape components, especially pasture and water.
This is a long-running, and understood, problem here in North America, and not just with elk. For more than a decade there have been efforts under way to create a "Yellowstone to Yukon" wildlife corridor that would benefit bears, elk, moose, and now wolves, and most recently a team of international scientists pointed to the need to strengthen and protect wildlife corridors leading north from Glacier National Park into Canada.
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is suffering its own elk over-population woes due to a lack of an apex predator that could tamp down the herds, as is Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. While Yellowstone National Park's elk herds have been trimmed by wolves that were returned to the park in the mid-1990s, the park's bison herds are suffering from Montana ranchers' opposition once they leave the park.
There are other examples, including some that don't involve charismatic mega-fauna. The point is there's a growing problem across the National Park System as more and more wildlife corridors are not just squeezed by development, but severed. How this dilemma is solved will go along way to not just better management options for biologists in places such as Theodore Roosevelt, but healthier wildlife populations.