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Humane Society of America Critical of Culling Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park


Culling elk in Rocky Mountain National Park is seen as a management tool to control populations of the ungulates. Pool photo by Wes Pope, Rocky Mountain News.

What doors will the culling of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park open?

Is it possible that, in the wake of sharpshooters turning up shortly before sunrise in Rocky Mountain to shoot an elk or two, similar "management" actions will pop up in places like Yellowstone, Theodore Roosevelt, or Wind Cave national parks, or any other park where the natural balance of wildlife is skewed?

The Humane Society of the United States fears that will be the case, and in a blog today the group's president and chief executive officer, Wayne Pacelle, took strong objection to the elk culling in Rocky Mountain. Here's what he had to say:

By Wayne Pacelle

In 1985, I worked four months at Isle Royale National Park, an archipelago in the middle of Lake Superior best known for its moose and wolves. Since the 1950s, it’s been something of a laboratory for the study of predator-prey relationships. Because of its isolation, it only has one-third of the mammals (black bears did not make it over the ice bridges to Isle Royale) found in the boreal forests in adjacent Minnesota and Ontario.

Over time, the moose population has fluctuated widely between 500 and 2,000 moose, even though wolves have been continuously present at Isle Royale since population studies began in the 1950s. In short, while wolves do kill moose and have a dynamic effect on their population, it’s not as if the moose population stays at a fixed number. Their numbers cycle in roughly a 20-year pattern. And when moose populations are at their peak, they do have an impact on the vegetative community and there is a noticeable browse line, undoubtedly having a cascade effect on birds and other species that feed on plants and trees or use them for cover or nesting or protection from the cold.

It’s been a core principle of the National Park Service to let these mammalian population fluctuations occur without human intervention. As with almost every national park and national monument in the country, hunting is strictly forbidden at Isle Royale.

It’s in that context that I have been distressed by the elk killing now occurring at Rocky Mountain National Park in northeast Colorado. It’s a fabulous park I’ve visited many times, and while it has elk and mountain lions and black bears, the wolves are gone. Few people think they should be reintroduced there, because they’d quickly get in trouble outside of the park. But there has been ongoing debate about the size of the elk population and its impact on park vegetation.

Hunting has been banned in RMNP since 1929. But the Bush Administration and park officials have attempted to skirt the law and class hunters as “volunteers” and authorized them to start killing elk inside the park.

This decision is bad policy on its face, but particularly dangerous because it can have far-reaching policy implications for the entire National Park System.

If administrative agencies open this crack in the door, then what’s to stop similar “control” actions in other parks and monuments? There will always be some pressure group or other interested party who thinks that the system is out of balance and humans can do better in managing populations with their firearms and archery equipment. Nature is not a steady state system, and while there may be impacts from mammals on plants, trees, and other species, it’s likely that these effects will be transitory.

If politicians cave in to the NRA and other groups that have long coveted an opportunity to shoot wildlife in national parks, we may see proposals to allow “volunteer hunters” in Yellowstone or Yosemite or Acadia, or Everglades, or even Isle Royale. Yes, we have disturbed many of these systems, by removing some species or drawing boundaries that do not allow for migrations and normal movements of wide-ranging species. But this sort of lethal intervention is a very dangerous precedent, and it’s one that The HSUS opposes.

In December, we filed an amicus brief with the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado seeking to overturn the decision. And last week, I sent a letter to the newly appointed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking him to suspend and review this controversial decision.

Let’s hope they look at the larger picture, and recognize that adherence to the progressive principles governing management of our national parks is the proper backdrop for any decision made at Rocky Mountain National Park.


Mr. Pacelle, if as you say, you have visited Rocky many times, you must be aware of the fact that the Elk population is completely out of control. Being a resident in Estes Park I have witnessed over the past decade entire stands of Aspen and Willow disappearing due to elk eating the bark. Additionally, many other indiginous plant species have decreased substantially, that along with the trees are critical to the other mammals in the park, especially the beaver, whose population is estimated to have diminished 90% over the past half century. On top of that, the managers are concentrating on removing the elk that have been previously identified as having CWD which is essential to the health of the herd without any natural predators to thin these weakened/sick animals. To quote park spokesman Kyle Patterson "after shooting 100 elk this year, they'll monitor the population closely. There's a chance they won't have to do any culling during some of the following years."

100 elk accounts for a minimal 5% or less of the total population, thus this will be negligible on total herd impact. I am not a hunter but am an environmentalist, and strongly believe the park managers, being there every day 24-7/365 know better than we do. Thank you for your concern and comments.

Elk were eliminated from the Rocky Mountain National Park in 1870 by commercial hunting. By the turn of the century the gray wolf was gone, a key preditor for elk in this area. In 1914, twenty-eight elk were transplanted to this area by the request of local sportsmen. In 1915 Rocky Mountain National Park was established. Hunting is prohibited in national parks. Without predators or hunting the population exploded. By 1933 biologists expressed concern about vegetation conditions. Starting in 1944 park rangers began to use lethal reduction (shooting the elk) as a means of population control. This was the policy untill 1969 when policy changed. The policy was natural regulation, meaning do nothing and everything will balance out. This policy has been in place untill now.
The recomended elk population in the park is 1200-1700. In 2005 the park was estimated to have 3000-4000. Densities as high as 260 elk per square mile and the highest ever recorded. If you enjoy seeing elk in the park culling or regulated hunting would be a great economical way to control the population.
Or would you rather see starvation, disease and destruction of a habitat. Kurt Repanshek - natural regulation has been proven not to work.

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