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Dan Niosl, left center, of the Louis-Berger group, listens to questions from the public at a National Park Service public comment meeting held at the Days Hotel Grand Dakota Lodge in Dickinson on Monday.

Talkin' elk

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After five years in development, the National Park Service is in the process of collecting public comment on its Draft Elk Management Plan and Environment Impact Statement for Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

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The first of six public comment meetings to be held throughout the state over the next week was held in Dickinson at the Days Hotel Grand Dakota Lodge Monday.

Representatives from TRNP, the National Park Service and the Louis-Berger Group, which helped write the plan, presented and explained it to the public.

"It was their opportunity to tell what the plan was, what the five or six alternatives are and as far as that, they handled it well," said Slope County Commissioner Scott Ouradnik, who ranches north of Rhame.

Two presentations were given, one at 5:30 p.m. and another at 7 p.m., and following each the public was provided with the opportunity to discuss any issue they had in an individual question-and-answer period.

Those wishing to make an official public comment at the meeting could pick up a comment card and fill it out or dictate a comment to a park employee sitting at a laptop and have it sent online.

Valerie Naylor, the superintendent of TRNP, said the NPS chose the format they did to allow for more of a personal one-on-one touch to the proceedings.

"It's a much more effective way, so that people can ask their questions," she said.

Wayne Gerbig, who ranches northwest of Amidon and who is an advisory board member for the North Dakota Game and Fish, said he was frustrated with the format because it didn't allow the public to raise concerns publically.

"You can bring up a point that a lot of the audience might not be aware of and never will be," Gerbig said. "You can go around and visit the park people, but the people in the chars don't hear the other concerns."

During the presentation, TRNP wildlife biologist Mike Oehler gave a history of elk in the park and explained why the plan was necessary.

In 1985, 47 elk were reintroduced in the park's South Unit. The population has grown to approximately 875 today.

A large elk population could have a negative affect on the vegetation in the park utilized by other animals as well as impact agriculture outside the park.

The park originally managed the herd through roundup and translocation activities, but because of nationwide concerns regarding Chronic Wasting Disease it can no longer do so.

Therefore the Park Service is considering six alternatives, which include:

* Alternative A: No action.

* Alternative B: Herd reduction through the use of sharpshooters.

* Alternative C: Herd reduction through roundup and euthanization.

* Alternative D: Testing of a representative sample for chronic wasting disease, and shipping live elk to other entities.

* Alternative E: Encouraging hunting opportunities outside park boundaries.

* Alternative F: Fertility control operations.

Gerbig and Ouradnik said they could live with each of the alternatives except Alternative E.

"From a landowner's standpoint, I'd be very concerned about that one," Ouradnik said.

"Letting them out, they're just passing the buck onto the landowners," Gerbig said.

Naylor said all the alternatives but alternative F are being considered at this point. Alternative F was included in the plan because it could become an option in the future.

No product currently exists that meets NPS criteria for an infertility agent and therefore won't be implemented at this time but could in the future, Naylor said.

"Because it's a 15-year plan and because technology changes and there are advances in science all the time it's possible that say 12 years from now they'll develop something that meets the criteria," Naylor said. "And if that's the case then we would consider using it."

An alternative not included in the draft plan, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's "Alternative G," was left out because hunting is not presently allowing in TRNP or any national park.

"If they can include an alternative like the fertility one -- when something may become available in the future -- why not in case there is a change in policy or law that they include this (hunting) now so they don't have to do it all over again," said Randy Kreil, chief of the NDGF's wildlife division.

David Jacob with the NPS's Environmental Quality Division said "Alternative G" was considered, but the Park Service determined it would set a precedent it was not interested in setting at this time.

"We dismissed Alternative G based on policy and efficacy reasons and one of the reasons for dismissing Alternative G is it would reverse a 100-year policy on hunting in National Parks," Jacob said.

Sen. Bryon Dorgan, D-N.D., supports the NDGF's alternative and met with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last month to discuss the issue.

"I believe that it simply makes common sense to use volunteer hunters to help thin the elk herd at the park. It also makes sense for volunteer hunters to have the option of either donating the elk meat to food banks, or to keep it," Dorgan said in a statement issued Monday. "The restriction on hunting in national parks was never meant to prohibit the rational thinning of an elk herd by qualified volunteers selected by the Park Service. If federal legislation is needed, however, I am prepared to pursue that avenue."

A meeting for Fargo is scheduled for tonight at the Holiday Inn.

Subsequent meetings will be held in Grand Forks at the CanadInn, Minot at the International Inn, Mandan at the Best Western Seven Seas Inn and Convention Center and Medora at the Medora Community Center on Wednesday through Saturday, respectively. All of the meetings will run from 5 to 8:30 p.m. local time with the only exception being the Medora meeting which will run from 2 to 5:30 p.m.

If the public wishes to comment and cannot make it to the meeting they can still submit a comment by visiting http://parkplanning.nps.gov/thro, by email thro_forum@nps.gov or by mail at Superintendent, Theodore Roosevelt national Park, P.O. Box 7, Medora, N.D. 58645. The public comment period ends March 19.

Jacob said comments should be focused on the alternatives presented at the meeting and be as detailed as possible to facilitate the process.

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