Elk Population Reduction: Bullets, Wolves, or Fences

In 2008, The Wild Earth Guardians, a wildlife restoration group, lost a court case to the National Park Service. The decision; to reduce the overpopulation of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park through shooting, rather the reintroduction of wolves.

Last week, the Wild Earth Guardians appealed to the case to figure out the absolute best way to kill America’s favorite forest cow; shooting from helicopters or naturally through hungry grey wolves. However, at the Wenger Blog, we have found out that neither of these methods solve the issue. Our findings: fences.

Elk thinning in Rocky Mountain National Park is necessary to help maintain the park’s ecosystem. Populations are currently managed primarily by shooting surplus animals. In 2008, Wild Earth Guardians sued the National Park Service for not giving adequate consideration to a plan to reintroduce wolves to Rocky Mountain National Park as a means of thinning elk population that are higher than attendance at most Justin Bieber concerts. In appeals court this week, the old arguments were reiterated with some experts using Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction program as evidence that wolves can work. But the Yellowstone is an example of why wolves don’t work, and more importantly, it suggests that Rocky Mountain’s existing strategy won’t work either.

To the average outsider and for most visitors of Rocky Mountain National Park, elk are a welcome sight. They’re massive, noble creatures so popular they even have their own club. Unfortunately, if you’re a young aspen tree, a beaver or one of any number of butterflies and birds, elk are a real pain in the ass. Elk feast on immature aspen trees, which isn’t necessarily a problem, unless the elk reach record high populations and start to eat all the young aspen trees, as they did about a decade ago. The consequences of their specific diet mean that very few aspen mature, which result in decreased habitats for butterflies and birds, as well as a significant reduction in building materials for cute little beavers. No beaver dams have further effects on wildlife, since their aquatic tree-houses often plug up runoff and streams to create large surface water areas that even more wildlife rely on, including the always popular willow tree. In short, when elk eat too many trees, it pisses off a lot of flora and fauna.

The obvious solution is to limit the number of elk. Fewer elk eat fewer trees, problem solved. No one is arguing that point; apparently, the elk have very few lobbyist friends. In 2007, the National Park Service concluded a research study on the population in Rocky Mountain National Park and offered up several options for decreasing elk numbers: do nothing, shoot them, or get a bunch of wolves to come down for operation “Sizzler.” Almost a half-century ago, wolves were removed from the park grounds for a variety of reasons, park visitor safety being only one motivation. After reviewing their options, the NPS decided to go with shooting. This is not to say that folks can just stroll down to the park and bag an elk. The shooting is done by park staff or volunteers who are trained by the park and supervised at all times. Once killed, the meat is distributed by lottery to local civilians. It’s a system designed to appear as systematic removal, rather than hunting.

Hunting is a central focus of the Wild Earth Guardians. They feel that hiring people to shoot elk is no different than hunting and therefore illegal. While hunting is permitted in 69 areas within the national park system, Rocky Mountain is not one of them. In the end, Wild Earth is arguing semantics and while it might have an affect on how the elk are killed, it is still a politically motivated argument.

Wild Earth’s primary objective is to help conserve and restore our natural spaces. In this light, it’s easy to see why they would prefer to have wolves perform their natural duty. It’s a natural solution to a natural problem and they merely want the National Park Service to give wolves more consideration. But the use of wolves isn’t the problem. In the mid-90s, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone to solve the exact same problem: too many elk eating too many aspen babies. Today, the wolves have done a great job. According to a 2010 study published in Ecology magazine and led by Matthew Kaufman, elk populations have been reduced by 60%. Unfortunately, it’s had almost no effect on aspen grove restoration.

“None of the aspen groves studied after wolf restoration appear to be regenerating, even in areas risky to elk.” Ooops. Even more absurd, “aspen stands identified as risky from the predation risk map were browsed just as often as aspen growing in less risky areas.” Aspen areas where elk were frequently killed by elk were just as degraded as those which weren’t dangerous which means one of two things: either elk are the dumbest creatures alive or, aspen saplings are the most delicious food in the world. The point is, even with a reduction of more than half of the elk, aspen still aren’t regenerating which, if we all remember, was the entire point of the wolf vs. shooter debate.

The elk management plan for Rocky Mountain National Park advises a reduction of approximately 43%, while in Yellowstone reductions of 60% aren’t enough. The real concern should be a re-evaluation of what sort of elk populations are truly needed to save the aspen and thus, the rest of the ecosystem. While Wild Earth Guardians are worrying about how elk are dying to save the park, they should be more worried as to whether enough are dying.

Kaufman’s study went on to report that the only effective strategy was also the most simple. “The only places where [aspen] survived to reach a height sufficient to avoid browsing were in the fenced-in areas.” The answer is a simple fence. Rocky Mountain’s plan also involves marginal use of fences, presumably for smaller, more devastated area. All out fencing isn’t a realistic solution. It is expensive and, unfortunately, it doesn’t look good. Visitors don’t want to come to a park that looks like a construction site. Nor do visitors want to see a park without aspen trees, or beaver dams, or butterflies.

Visitors want a park that’s balanced and natural. In the end, that’s all the National Park Service and Wild Earth Guardians want too. How they get to that ultimate solution remains to be seen, but arguing the method of killing is not the primary problem. More alternative solutions, including fencing need to be more serious considered. As seen in Yellowstone, basic reductions aren’t cutting it and if other steps aren’t taken soon, the balance of Rocky Mountain and other national parks could be in greater trouble than most realize.

By Patrick Hutchison