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Elk population control ahead of schedule

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park officials said Thursday they are ahead of schedule in reducing their elk population, which was 138 in January.

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Nearly 400 volunteer shooters combed through the park South Unit throughout the past two years, Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said, adding that park efforts resulted in a healthy elk population.

"We had originally anticipated that it may take up to five years to get to this phase of our management plan, but we got there much more quickly," Naylor said in a press release sent to The Press.

Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs for the park, said the elk population dropped from about 1,200 to around 138 since 2010, when the reduction project began. She added that having fewer elk is necessary.

"There were a lot of elk," Andes said. "We wanted to start a reduction program before there was resource damage. We didn't want to see any overgrazing."

Elk share the South Unit with other animals, Chief of Resource Management Bill Whitworth said, and too many elk could be bad for various habitats.

"We've got to have fewer of the big animals out there," Whitworth said. "We don't want (the park) to be dominated by elk or bison or horses."

The first phase of reduction started in November 2010 and ran through January 2011, while the second phase lasted from October through December, she said. During the phases, park biologists guided mostly North Dakota and Minnesota volunteer shooters outside the south unit fences, she added.

"In addition to shooting the elk, they would field dress the elk and also take blood and tissue samples," she said, adding that biologists tested each specimen for Chronic Wasting Disease, of which none tested positive. "It's probably the most studied elk population around."

While some might view elk population reduction as cruel, Andes said the process brings balance to the environment, allowing different animal species to coexist in a healthy manner. Reduction efforts also helped a number of people around the state.

"The elk meat was used to stock food pantries throughout North Dakota," she said. "We also donated a lot (of elk meat) to the North Dakota American Indian tribes."

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