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Public workshops to address elk issues

MEDORA - Complexity is what surrounds the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) when it comes to its elk population. It is ranges from 750-900 today, but could near 1,000 in the next few years.

MEDORA - Complexity is what surrounds the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) when it comes to its elk population. It is ranges from 750-900 today, but could near 1,000 in the next few years.

Due to this complex issue, the TRNP staff, along with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and United States (U.S.) Forest Service, is conducting two public workshops from 6:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, in Bismarck and Thursday, Feb. 22, in Medora. The location in Bismarck has yet to be decided, but the Medora workshop is at the South Unit Visitor Center.

A short presentation about the elk management issues begins the workshops with participants then breaking up into small groups to discuss what the park staff and others have worked on and come up with on how to approach the situation.

TRNP Wildlife Biologist Mike Oehler works closely on studying the elk herd and is hoping the workshops help staff to work through alternatives.

"We're not looking for a definitive answer from the public, but we won't stop someone if they have an epiphany on how to address the elk situation," Oehler said. "We have a list of alternatives we've worked through meticulously and we would like suggestions from the public on what they think will work or not."

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The workshops are a chance for the public to give the TRNP staff feedback on current alternatives identified and presented at those meetings, he added.

The park, game and fish department and forest service conducted a series of public scoping meetings in 2004 to gather public ideas on thinning the elk herd in the park.

Those meetings are being offered again after the results from this February's workshops are compiled into a draft environmental impact statement which can be reviewed and commented on by the public later this year.

The previous meetings' data gathered seven alternatives which included the options of public hunting within TRNP and redistribution of elk to areas outside the park to increase hunting outside the park. These were eliminated as alternatives by the park staff.

Reintroduction of predators and total removal of all or most elk in the TRNP would unbalance the ecosystem in the park. Reproductive control alone could not effectively reduce the herd and an agent is not yet available.

Translocation of elk without testing for CWD was eliminated by the National Park Service in 2003 and moving elk to the North Unit would not help things in the long run.

"We want the public to understand the complexity of this issue," TRNP Superintendent Valerie Naylor said. "Whenever a major federal action takes place it is required by law to get public inquiry and comments, but more importantly we want public involvement."

People have the right to know, she added.

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Six new alternatives

Six preliminary alternatives developed based on internal and public scoping by the TRNP staff are being presented at the workshops. The alternatives are offered in a recent park newsletter on elk management.

The first alternative is taking no action, which means mostly continuing on the present course.

This alternative includes monitoring elk populations and movement patterns within and outside the park. Staff also would monitor the vegetation at permanent range transects and maintain existing bison/horse fences. Limiting elk emersion is part of this alternative, along with continuing Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) surveillance and leaving carcasses to decompose on the landscape.

The other five alternatives take action and could be done in two phases. Phase one is an initial reduction in the size of the elk population and phase two is maintaining that size population created by the first phase.

In all scenarios, meat would be donated to food banks, zoos and other charities, with some carcasses left to decompose.

The second alternative is sharp-shooting teams using high powered rifles removing elk from within the park. Carcasses would then be removed to a central location by helicopter. Removal times would be fall and winter when park visitation is low. Once the initial elk goal is met, sharp shooting would be done on an as needed basis.

The third alternative is rounding up the elk into a holding pen then separating them into different corrals where some would be let back into the park and others would be brought to a processing center to be euthanized.

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Again, after the initial reduction the elk would be rounded up on an as needed basis. If a processing center is not found to handle live elk they would then be euthanized on-site.

The fourth alternative is translocation of the herd by rounding them up and separating them in different corrals, some staying in the park and the others taken to the new location at the cost of whoever is getting them. The recipient(s) would be identified prior to the round-up. Additional removals would be done as needed to control the population.

The fifth alternative is similar to the fourth, but for maintenance fertility control agents would be used to keep the population down. The ideal scenario includes fertility control agents using no meat residue and multi-year efficacy. All treated elk would be clearly marked and the application would happen in early fall. The downside of this alternative is there is no current fertility control agent meeting these objectives.

The sixth alternative combines lethal and non-lethal action by incorporating the fourth alternative of translocation for initial reduction and the first alternative of sharp shooting to maintain the herd's size.

The impact statement

The impact statement is a fairly long process. It is a detailed and large document which is book length when done and put together.

Naylor is hoping for the statement to be done by late summer to be reviewed by the public via the Internet or by hard copy.

"The purpose is to disclose to the public the process and alternatives of thinning the elk herd in the park," Naylor said. "This is about devising a plan of action for the future of the elk in the park for the next 10-15 years."

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Right now, the park staff is at the development and disclosure phase. Whatever is decided will most likely be complex, she added.

"There are no simple solutions," Naylor said. "Once the draft statement goes out for comment and is revised from those comments the decision is then recorded. If it is signed in 2008, we can take action. Our hope is to take action in 2008 or 2009."

The statement and workshops are being funded through national park service funds which come from the National Park Service (NPS) office in Washington D.C. The issue of maintaining a healthy size elk herd was put on the NPS priority list for this year.

"There are other similar elk and deer studies being done in the eastern U.S. and Rocky Mountain area," Naylor said. "I'm not sure of the cost of our study, but I know it is budgeted in phases."

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