ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. (AP) — Sharpshooters will start killing elk in the next few weeks to thin the herd in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The reduction is the result of a decade of research and development of a management plan to cut the number of elk in the park about 70 miles northwest of Denver. Park officials want to thin the herd because overgrazing by elk has nearly wiped out aspens and willows, prime habitat for beavers and birds.
There are about 600 to 800 elk in the park and 1,000 to 1,300 elk in and around the neighboring town of Estes Park.
Biologists have said Rocky Mountain National Park’s elk densities — up to 285 per square mile in some prime winter range — are the highest recorded for a free-ranging herd in the Rockies.
Environmentalists have filed a lawsuit saying that releasing wolves to prey on elk is a better solution that has worked in Yellowstone National Park.
Park Superintendent Vaughn Baker said the National Park Service is conducting the culling with the public in mind.
“We are doing this with the utmost care — that this, in fact, is a national park with visitors,” Baker said.
The areas where the animals will be shot will be closed to the public.
Two teams of sharpshooters will soon begin culling up to 100 cow elk in the park. The teams will include Park Service and Colorado Division of Wildlife employees and screened volunteers.
The culling is designed to be humane and swift, with primary and secondary shooters, said Ben Bobowski, the park’s chief of resource stewardship.
Each animal shot will be tested for chronic wasting disease, a brain-wasting ailment similar to mad cow disease. The meat that tests positive will go to a mountain lion research project and meat that tests negative will be sent to participants of a lottery.
The environmental group WildEarth Guardians is suing to block the culling. The group notes that wolves first released in 1995 in Yellowstone have helped control the elk herds, which grew largely unchecked because of a lack of predators.
Park officials considered using a small number of wolves to reduce the herd and keep the animals on the move so they couldn’t damage the vegetation. But they have said there wasn’t the necessary support from other state and federal agencies to release wolves. They also said the park isn’t big enough to contain the wolves long term.
North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park faces a similar dilemma, where the public is pressuring park managers to enlist hunters rather than taxpayer-funded shooters to reduce the elk herd.