Rocky Mountain National Park elk plan asks employees to take their best shot | SkyHiNews.com

Rocky Mountain National Park elk plan asks employees to take their best shot

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi Daily News

Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News

Controlling the burgeoning elk population in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Estes Valley has the Park Service reaching into an assorted bag of tricks that includes killing 200 of the animals each year.

After seven years of research and planning, the Park’s environmental impact statement has zeroed in on a strategy that includes culling, fencing and redistributing herds at a cost of $6 million over the life of the plan.

Wolves and fertility control are included as a distant option.

The plan replaces the costly alternative the Park preferred last year, which called for professional sharpshooters taking out 700 elk in the first year, at a cost of $16.2 million to $18.2 over a 20-year span.

Instead, as many as 200 elk will be killed annually over 20 years to reach a herd population of 1,600 to 2,100 with the help of “National Park Service staff and authorized agents of the National Park Service.”

Park Service personnel will be first in line to reduce elk herds, according to Rocky Mountain National Park spokesperson Kyle Patterson, and when additional help is needed, staff from other federal, state and local agencies, individuals from Indian tribes, contractors or qualified volunteers would be called on.

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Hunters seeking to score elk in the Park’s virgin wilderness should hold off buying extra shells, however.

“We’re still defining ‘qualified volunteers.’ They’d have to be specially trained in wildlife culling and pass a proficiency test,” Patterson said.

This plan’s “slower approach” allows work to be accomplished in-house, providing cost savings, “rather than relying on (sharpshooting) contractors as was proposed,” Park literature states.

The Park’s Elk Management Plan is in response to declining willow and aspen stands, depriving wildlife of essential habitat and throwing ecosystems off-balance.

In the absence of natural predators, such as wolves, elk herds are eating themselves out of house and home and overflowing into Estes Park neighborhoods.

The plan launches mid-January, when research on chronic wasting disease and elk fertility control begins.

The main thrust of the plan, culling members of the herd, starts as early as winter of 2008-09, Patterson said. Carcasses will be tested, and if found safe, donated to organizations and tribal groups.

In addition to killing female elk, up to 440 acres of aspen and willow habitat will be fenced to encourage habitat growth by excluding elk and other foragers.

And because perception, attitudes and policies can change in the future, Park officials say, wolves may eventually be introduced to the Park as an elk-management tool. Wolves, if accepted as a natural and viable solution in controlling elk populations, would be limited to a few, collared, closely tracked and captured if they wandered outside of park boundaries.

” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail tbina@grandcountynews.com.

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