Elk Overpopulation Stirs Debate

By Beacon Staff

MEDORA, N.D. (AP) – The number of elk roaming the nation’s parks is booming, and that’s bad news for them.

A debate has started among wildlife and conservation officials about how the animals should be culled — by sharpshooters’ bullets or by their natural enemy, wolves.

The National Park Service has no firm estimate on the total number of elk in national parks, simply because they live in the wild and migrate in and out of many parks.

But managers at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota have documented overpopulation problems.

At Theodore Roosevelt, officials are considering several options, including the use of government and volunteer shooters. A draft management plan is due out early this year.

One option not on the table: rounding up the animals and shipping them out. That’s because the transfer of living elk is restricted for fear they have chronic wasting disease.

“Now that we’re not moving elk, we’ve got to do something else to control elk numbers,” said Bert Frost, the Park Service’s acting associate director for natural resource stewardship and science.

Moving elk once was a common management tool at Theodore Roosevelt. After a 2000 roundup, elk were given to zoos, American Indian tribes and even the state of Kentucky.

Since the practice was stopped, the herd at the park in southwestern North Dakota has grown to as many as 900 animals, on land that can sustain only about 360.

At Rocky Mountain, where chronic wasting disease was discovered in the early 1980s, the elk herd is estimated to be at the high end of a target range of 1,600 to 2,100 animals.

At Wind Cave, where the disease also was detected, the animals number about 650, nearly double the ideal herd size. The park had been shipping out elk as recently as 1994.

All three parks are working on new elk management plans. Rocky Mountain’s plan includes the use of National Park Service employees and volunteers to cull the herd.

The conservation group WildEarth Guardians advocates the restoration of wolves to manage elk at Rocky Mountain. Executive Director John Horning said the group will sue in federal court by spring to block that park’s plan to shoot the animals.

The preferred approach in the Wind Cave plan, which will be presented to the public in draft form in the spring, is to allow animals to move outside the park and be hunted, said Dan Foster, the park’s chief of resource management.

Theodore Roosevelt officials agreed to consider volunteer shooters under pressure from U.S. senators and state wildlife officials in Colorado and North Dakota. Private hunting is usually not legal in the three parks.

Wolves have kept down elk herds in other parks, said Margaret Wild, a National Park Service wildlife veterinarian and an expert on chronic wasting disease.

The elk herd at Yellowstone National Park grew largely unchecked in part because of the loss of most predators. That changed when wolves were released there in 1995.

“The Park Service mission is to preserve ecological processes, and the way we try to do that is to let natural processes take their course,” said P.J. White, supervisory wildlife biologist at Yellowstone. “Restore native species such as wolves, and minimize human intervention to the extent that we can.”

Elk at Rocky Mountain are damaging trees that park biologist Therese Johnson said are important to many animal species. At Theodore Roosevelt, the large number of elk in the park have even caused problems for ranchers like Bill Lowman who live outside of the fenced boundaries.

“Elk will run through a fence, just tear it out by the hundreds of feet,” he said. “Elk don’t know the difference between federal land and private land. They like private land because it has more hay and feed.”

Since elk have to be killed to be tested for chronic wasting disease, there is little hope for any future elk transfers out of national parks until a live test for the disease becomes available for general use.

“We’re years away from a live test that could be used,” said Bryan Richards of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.

There is a live test for deer but it does not work in elk because chronic wasting — similar to mad cow disease — develops differently in the animals, Richards said.

Removing infected herds and starting over is not an option, Frost said. Potentially infected elk would simply wander back into the parks from surrounding areas, he said.

The Black Hills have a lot of mountain lions, but they cannot remove enough elk to be an effective management tool, Foster said. In the absence of natural predators, he said, “we, the managers, have to be the predators.”