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Sharpshooters To Begin Reducing Elk Herds in Rocky Mountain National Park


Culling operations soon will get under way in Rocky Mountain National Park to bring down the population of elk in the park. NPS photo.

"Culling." It's a fairly innocuous word. Look it up in the dictionary and one of the definitions you'll find is "to remove rejected members or parts from (a herd, for example)."

Use that word in the context of a national park and, well, that could spur some discussion, if not outright controversy since "natural processes" are supposed to rule in the National Park System. So let's see what happens in the coming days when culling operations get under way at Rocky Mountain National Park, where the focus will not specifically be on removing "rejected" elk, but simply on tamping down the overall elk populations.

The need to trim the herds is fairly obvious -- Rocky Mountain, in effect, is being over-grazed by the ungulates, so much so that beaver habitat, for example, has all but vanished across much of the park.

Now, if wolf packs still roamed Rocky Mountain sharpshooters might not be needed to remove about 100 elk this winter. But the natural predators long ago were hunted to oblivion in and around the park, (although there still are suspicions that a wolf or two from the Yellowstone National Park stock might be lurking the mountains in and around Rocky).

And public hunting is not allowed in the park. At least not currently. There are some who thought a public hunt would be one way to control the elk populations in Rocky Mountain. Similar thoughts are receiving attention at Theodore Roosevelt and Wind Cave national parks.

Rocky Mountain officials actually settled back in December 2007 on a 20-year elk control plan that includes an option to resort to culling operations in a bid to control the elk numbers. They're also trying birth control. Depending on natural circumstances, some years might not require culling operations.

Exactly how many elk are in the park varies throughout the year. While the range of animals in recent years in the park sub-population and the Estes Park sub-population has been pegged at somewhere between 2,200 and 3,100, according to park wildlife biologists, during the past five winters the average count has been between 1,700 and 2,200. The park's objective is to keep the combined winter population of the two herds between 1,600 and 2,100.

Now, some groups believe the National Park Service should mount a wolf recovery program in Rocky Mountain to take care of the elk boom. While WildEarth Guardians sued the Park Service last March on just that point, a ruling is not imminent and no injunction was put in place to prevent culling operations.

Still, the group sent a letter on Wednesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to put a stop to the culling operations.


It seems so sad to kill the elk,but I really am not educated enough on this issue to know the right answer. I hope that the elk meat is eaten. The hunters should not be able to make money on antlers or anything else from their kill. I hope that the birth control will prove to be a solution.

As I understand it, the meat will go to folks who participated in a lottery. None of the shooters will be allowed to keep antlers or meat.

They should have given the meat to local food banks !!!


Can't we auction the right to shoot the animals? The money could go to good use in other areas of the park.

The problem is that allowing a public hunt would establish a dangerous precedent. This "culling" is similar to what they used to do in Yellowstone back in the forties and fifties. It was finally stopped in the sixties which, of course, led to the famous (infamous) Northern Range herd of the early ninties of 19,000 plus animals; several thousand of which died of winter-kill the year that the wolves were reintroduced. Of course the wolves got the "blame" even though they were still in their holding pens. What they discovered in Yellowstone was that "culling" elk doesn't solve the problem. Elk numbers may have been lower, but the remaining animals still hung out in river bottoms and ate every single aspen or willow shoot to the ground, destroying habitat for beavers, fish, songbirds and even moose before moving on. Only with the reintroduction of the apex predator, wolves, and the establishment of the "ecology of fear" did elk learn once again to act like elk instead of cows. Now they are constantly on the move and entire habitats are making a dramatic comeback. Even red fox and pronghorn (two species heavily preyed upon by coyotes) have benefited, as coyote numbers have been brought under control by the wolves.
Reintroducing wolves to Rocky Mountain National Park is the obvious right answer. Problem is that in a few years the wolves will be spreading beyond park boundaries, and nearby ranchers will be insisting that their numbers be "culled". The real problem is that Rocky Mountain National Park is too darn small. All of our National parks are. You can't contain an ecosystem inside park boundaries. Even Yellowstone, as large as it is, has seen this with the bison controvery.....and wolves. Unfortuneately, when most of these parks were formed they could not have foreseen that civilization would one day encroach right to their borders; and even if they had, the effects that would have.

Frank N-

Excellent comments and one could not say it better. Western parks went from being islands of civilization in a sea of wilderness to islands of wilderness in a sea of civilization.

Regardless, I foresee future hindsight exposing this program as being yet another example of poor management decision making - leeches for a fever instead of medicine.

I agree that Frank N has said it all very well. I think introduction of wolves, if even for a time (i.e. until they start to cause more issues outside the park than they solve within), would be a very natural and viable option. An option mentioned in the article that I shuddered to read regards using birth control. What kind of birth control would that be, exactly? Hormonal therapy, such as what we humans have manufactured and think is so great for our bodies? Yikes! That seems to be so far off from a natural solution that it is downright scary to think about. Look at all the side effects to humans from these chemical hormones we put into our bodies. What sort of side effects would chemical manipulation of animal hormones cause? Furthermore, what about the fact that there are issues with pharmaceuticals (especially hormones) already present in our country's water, and although some argue that there are no effects to humans from these residuals in the water, there are documented cases of effects to aquatic species. So, it follows that any excreted bi-products/excess chemicals from these elk would enter into the parks' streams, which are the drinking water source for animals, as well as habitat for others. There might not be any immediate "trickle down" effects, but over time, we might be putting all native populations at risk. I certainly hope someone thinks more in the way of how the natural environment and progression of things works before they try to put some sort of a chemical "solution" into the mix!

I don't know about elk, but birth control on deer was a failure when tried. Turned out the males just stayed in rut and caused more damage. The explosion in deer has been costly to cars from the increase in deer hits by cars. Elk not being in high population centers are not a problem to cars and do need to have the numbers thinned. The problem with hunts is that they are not year round and generaly take out the biggest rather than the weakest as wolves will do.

Hunts will help in the short term but not in the long run. I agree that wolves will help and the wolves that spread outside the boundaries and kill herds will be killed. That is just nature with humans in the mix.

As to the opinion that hunters cannot take the antlers. why not? They did the work why not a trophy. The meat can go to food banks if accepted then they parks will have to pay for the butchers to butcher the meat.

As to making hunters pay, they generally do pay for hunting permits and special hunts like this have lotteries and money is charged for the special hunting permit, I believe. The hunters can explain further.

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