Park Elk Plan Slammed For Snubbing Hunters

The plan to cull elk in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park announced this week has been roundly criticized for its shortcomings, as well as for taking traditional hunting off the management table.

As I blogged here Tuesday, under the U.S. Park Service plan, park personnel, authorized agents, private contractors and “qualified volunteers” selected and managed by park service officials would kill 100 to 200 elk per year—significantly fewer than an earlier plan that targeted 700 animals.

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Biologists estimate the elk population at RMNP is between 2,200 and 3,100. The $6 million, 20-year project would lower the number of animals around 50 percent.

The plan unveiled this week by the park service calls for using sharpshooters (using firearms equipped with silencers, at night), beginning next winter, after most visitors have left the park. Though the plan mentioned some trained and supervised “volunteers” might be used, details on participation by outsiders were vague. In addition, the plan calls for all meat from the culled elk to be donated to charity and Indian reservations.

The plan has come under sharp criticism from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, as well as from Colorado lawmakers who were calling for the inclusion of hunters in the elk-management process.

“The North American management plan has always been to deal with the (elk) populations by hunting. Not by snipers in the darkness killing animals,” Tom Burke, chairman of the Colorado Wildlife Commission, told the Loveland Reporter-Herald this week.

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The offices of U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard and U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, the Colorado lawmakers who introduced legislation in Congress to allow traditional hunters to take part in National Park wildlife management, also criticized the plan.

“Hiring professional sharpshooters seems to violate the essence of the ‘Rocky Mountain hunting experience,’” Allard’s spokesman Steve Wyme told the Denver Post. “Our state is home to the best hunters in the country. We should include them in the process.”

In addition to being summarily rejected by plan, the hunting community is also bristling over the park service’s apparent embracing of management practices championed by wildlife protection groups and animal rights organizations.

The plan calls for biologists to conduct a fertility and birth control study beginning in January. Other non-lethal management and so-called "aversive techniques" include the construction of fences around vegetation and aspen groves, firing blank ammo and rubber bullets, and use of dogs to disperse herds.

Additionally, the park service has not ruled out the introduction of wolves to help keep the elk numbers in check.

These days, any discussion that includes both big game birth control and wolves is sure to get the attention of hunters and game agencies.

“I think our big concern is that through this whole process, we’ve asked and encouraged them to use qualified volunteers to remove whatever number of elk is appropriate,” Commissioner Burke told the Loveland newspaper. “But they haven’t said, ‘Yes, this is what we’re going to do.’ We’re just concerned that they have not defined exactly how they’re going to deal with the issue.”