Carnivore Restoration News :: Sinapu

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Elk kills eyed to restore park balance

By David Olinger,
Denver Post Staff Writer

To save aspen, willows and beavers, a Rocky Mountain National Park plan calls for rangers using guns with silencers to shoot hundreds of elk at night.

"Lethal reduction" - the preferred option in a plan for dealing with elk issued by the park Monday - would cull up to 700 animals a year.

The night shooting would minimize disturbances to visitors who come to hike the park's rugged trails and watch the elk graze its valleys, park officials said.

"It sounds like a very tricky operation to do successfully," said Steve Smith, the Wilderness Society's assistant regional director.

"I will be curious," Smith said, "to see how local people respond to the notion of firearms being discharged at night."

The park also could erect fences to protect 545 acres of young aspen trees from being eaten by elk.

The culling and fencing are key elements in the plan to reduce the size of an elk population that has grown in the absence of predators and ravaged plant communities needed by other animals.

The swelling herds have been particularly hard on beavers, which feed on and build dams from riparian willow shrubs.

The beaver population has plummeted in the park, a decline linked, in part, to elk grazing in the willows.

Some environmental groups question why the elk's natural predator - the wolf - was not chosen to restore the park's natural balance.

The plan called wolves "the environmentally preferred alternative."

"Using wolves really fits the mission of a national park," said the Wilderness Society's Smith.

Sinapu, a Boulder-based wildlife-advocacy group, called for conservationists to "howl for wolves" as a better alternative.

Wolves make elk more wary and mobile. "The elk aren't spending half a day grazing everything within a neck's distance to the ground," said Rob Edward, Sinapu's director of carnivore restoration.

National Park Service officials emphasize that their preferred alternative plan is preliminary and will be modified in response to public comments.

They also say that none of the other alternatives they considered to reduce the herd, from introducing wolves to elk birth control, would have succeeded without killing elk as well.

"We've already had a large decline in aspen and willow in high elk-use areas," said Therese Johnson, the park biologist leading its management plan.

Without killing some elk, she said, "we'd be converting willow and aspen stands, which support a higher level of wildlife diversity, into grasslands."

The park's "lethal reduction" plan allows for flexibility. It calls for shooting 200 to 700 elk for four years, based on whether factors such as reproduction rates, weather and hunting outside the park affect its yearly elk population. Elk would then be killed at lower rates, 25 to 150 a year, for the next 16 years.

The overall goal: Reducing the elk numbers, now ranging from 2,200 to 3,000, to a sustainable population of 1,200 to 1,700.

If the night shooting doesn't work, the plan allows for other killing methods: guns without silencers, anesthesia darts "followed by lethal injection" and wolves.

Johnson said relying on wolves alone would be impractical.

"It would become very difficult to implement," she said. "Wolves are a wide-ranging species, and the park is small."

Under the park plan, some carcasses would be left in the woods for animals that eat carrion. Some of the meat would be donated if tests showed it was free of chronic wasting disease.

The park has not decided how to distribute the meat.

The Park Service says the public can review the plan online and make comments at

RMNP plans to cull elk herd

Too many animals threaten vegetation

By Douglas Crowl
The Daily Times-Call

ESTES PARK — The regal elk herd that gives Rocky Mountain National Park its soul and the Estes Valley a large part of its economic vitality will be thinned by sharpshooters under a long-term plan favored by federal officials to protect the park’s habitat.

The culling effort is the “preferred alternative” of five management options for reducing elk numbers in the Estes Valley under a draft 20-year elk- and vegetation-
management plan released Monday.

Park biologists believe between 2,200 and 3,000 elk live in the park during at least some of the year. They would like to cut the population down to 1,200 to 1,700 animals in four years to keep the oversized herd from eating new-growth willow and aspen trees, an important component of the ungulates’ diet but also vital to species such as songbirds.

Hunting is banned in national parks, which has allowed the herd living in and around Rocky to reach densities of as much as 260 elk per square mile, “the highest concentrations ever documented for a free-ranging population in the Rocky Mountains,” the Environmental Impact Statement for the management plan said.

To solve the problem, the park has proposed using staff or a contractor to cut the elk population in order to stop vegetation damage. Under the recommended alternative, between 200 and 700 elk would be shot annually, primarily using rifles, until the target population is reached.

Along with the culling, the park’s preferred plan also includes fencing off 586 acres of willow and aspen groves as protection from the browsing elk.

Park officials began working on the plan nearly three years ago after studies showed that new-growth willow and aspen trees was declining unnaturally in the park.

In Estes Park — whose economy hinges on tourists, many of whom visit to view the elk during the fall rut and to listen to the their piercing bugles — officials say they understand that the elk herd has outgrown the habitat’s capacity to support it.

Mayor John Baudek said the town needs the elk to be around but also depends on a healthy herd.

“The problem is that there is so many elk, it’s killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” Baudek said.

He said the town has worked closely with park officials and supports some type of herd reduction, although he would like the plan to be implemented more gradually than the four years under the recommended alternative.

While that option shies away from a separate alternative that called for re-introducing wolves as a natural, but intensively managed, form of elk population control, it does not entirely dismiss the role of the carnivores, killed off in Colorado in the 1930s.

While pro-carnivore and anti-hunting interests strongly supported the wolf proposal, it met formidable criticism from advocates of agriculture and other land-use interests.

According to park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson, wolves preying on elk herds and affecting their migration around the park could still be considered among the viable “elk-redistribution techniques” included in the preferred alternative.

“This is a 20-year plan, and a lot can change in the 20 years,” Patterson said.

Pro-carnivore group Sinapu released a statement Monday saying that the park buckled under political pressure and ignored science saying the wolves were the best option.

As proposed in the preferred alternative, elk culling would take place mostly at night with the use of spotlights, night-vision firearms and scopes, laser sights and silencers to cut down on public exposure to the program.

“This is strictly taking management action inside the park. ... There’s nothing recreational about it; we are managing numbers,” park biologist Therese Johnson said.

A temporary capture facility such as a “corral trap” also could be used to herd animals to help obtain objective numbers, according to the plan.

“Elk could be attracted to the facility using bait,” the plan states. “Alternatively, trained herding dogs, riders on horseback, people on foot with noisemakers or visual devices, or helicopters could direct elk to the facility.”

The elk then would be shot, killed by a penetrating bolt similar to those used to kill cattle, or killed by lethal injection.

Once the target population is established after four years, another 25 to 150 elk would be killed annually for the next 16 years to maintain the population, under the preferred alternative.

All the elk killed will be tested for chronic wasting disease, providing the park with data on the prevalence of the lethal ailment, Johnson said.

Meat from culled elk that tested negative for CWD likely would be donated, Johnson said.

The public can comment in the plan during public meetings slated for late May, and written comments will be accepted until July 4. Park officials will make a final decision on the plan, choosing either the preferred alternative or one of the other management options, by the end of the year, Patterson said.

The park could begin implementing the plan by next summer.

Alternatives to culling elk herds in RMNP

Alternative 1

No action

Alternative 2, preferred

Use lethal reduction of elk by agency personnel to reach a population target of 1,200 to 1,700 elk within the first four years of the plan, followed by lower levels of lethal reduction during the next 16 years to maintain this population size. This alternative includes the use of elk-redistribution techniques to move and disperse elk and up to 545 acres of fencing in aspen communities to exclude elk. Adaptive management is built into the process so that in later stages of implementation of this alternative, and given appropriate interagency cooperation, the release of intensively managed wolves could be considered as a potential redistribution technique.

Alternative 3

Rely on gradual lethal reduction spread over 20 years to reduce the herd to a population target of 1,600 to 2,100 elk. This alternative includes the use of elk-redistribution techniques to move and disperse elk, and up to 1405 acres of fencing in aspen and montane riparian willow communities to exclude elk.

Alternative 4

Use a fertility-control agent and lethal reduction spread over 20 years to reduce the herd to a population target of 1,600 to 2,100 elk. This alternative includes the use of elk-redistribution techniques to move and disperse elk, and up to 1405 acres of fencing in aspen and montane riparian willow communities to exclude elk.

Alternative 5

Involve the release of a limited number of wolves to be intensively managed and maintained in the park, and lethal reduction by agency staff to reduce the herd to a population target of 1,600 to 2,100 elk within the first four years of the plan, followed by lower levels of lethal reduction during the next 16 years to maintain the population between 1,200 and 2,100 elk. This alternative relies on a few intensively managed wolves to redistribute elk, but also includes the potential to use up to 545 acres of fencing in aspen communities to exclude elk as needed.

Rocky Mountain elk culling urged


DENVER - The elk that thrill visitors with statuesque poses and haunting, buglelike mating calls in Rocky Mountain National Park have become so numerous that park officials want hundreds of them shot and suggest wolves could help keep the herds in check.

The recommended alternative in a draft elk-management plan released Monday doesn’t suggest releasing wolves in the park, 70 miles northwest of Denver. Still, park officials said wolves would best meet environmental objectives and do the least damage.

“This is a 20-year plan, and a lot can happen in 20 years. Wolves may come in on their own,” park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson

Although the elk would provide plenty of food for wolves, wildlife biologists in the past have questioned whether there is enough winter habitat for the species in the high-altitude park. The park’s ability to sustain wolves without human conflicts also has been questioned because Rocky Mountain isn’t nearly as large as Yellowstone National Park and development has en- croached on two sides.

There are 2,200 to 3,000 elk roaming the park, and the animals are frequent visitors to the adjacent town of Estes Park. The preferred alternative in the draft plan calls for park employees or contractors to shoot 200 to 700 elk over four years and 25 to 150 elk annually for the next 16 years.

The goal is a population of 1,200 to 1,700 elk. Park officials say the solution must begin now because the herds are becoming a nuisance — to visitors who often sit in traffic as the animals cross the park’s winding mountain roads and to area’s flora. The elk chew up willows and aspen so important to other species, including songbirds and beavers.

Predators such as wolves and grizzly bears would force the elk to move around more and lead to some culling. But they haven’t been in the park for years, and a ban on hunting in national parks has resulted in big herds.

Elk densities, reaching as high as 260 elk per mile, are “the highest concentrations ever documented for a free-ranging population in the Rocky Mountains,” according to the park’s proposal.

Park officials realize some people will object to elk being killed, Patterson said. The plan calls for park employees and contractors to shoot the animals at night with silencers in part to keep the culling out of the public eye.

Shooting hundreds of the animals isn’t a long-term solution to overgrazing and habitat damage, said Rob Edward of Sinapu, a Boulder-based wildlife advocacy group that supports restoring wolves to Colorado.

“The only thing that will change that permanently is the presence of wolves unbridled by human management,” Edward said. “Politics is driving this. It should be good science and thoughtful policy.”

Wolves were wiped out in Colorado by the 1930s after ranchers, government agents and others shot, trapped and poisoned the predator. A state task force was formed after a wolf traced by its radio collar to Yellowstone National Park was found dead west of Denver in 2004.

Any proposal to restore wolves to Colorado would have to be considered by federal and state agencies and likely would meet strong opposition from ranchers and others. Critics argue that wolves are destroying big-game herds in Yellowstone and central Idaho, where a restoration program began in 1995.

Park officials included an option in the management plan to release at least two pairs of wolves to help control elk. Biologists say wolves would keep elk on the move and help ease the animals’ effect on vegetation.

Even if wolves were released, biologists believe as many as 500 elk still would have to be shot the first four years. Under another proposal, contraception would be given to elk.

Park officials will prepare a final environmental impact statement after taking public comments until July 4.

The Gazette contributed to this report.