In the mountains of central Colorado, an overgrown elk herd has been chewing Rocky Mountain National Park to the nub for decades now. The ungulates munch new aspens and willows before they can grow, and graze alpine meadows to golf-course length. So park officials plan to return to the method they used to thin out elk between 1944 and 1968 – shooting them.
Park officials have spent the past three years deciding how to trim the herd. They've been helped by harsh winters and a strong 2006 hunting season just outside the park, which dropped elk numbers to between 1,700 and 2,100 (from a high of as many as 3,500 in the late ‘90s). But biologists say a healthy population would be smaller still -- 1,600 to 2,000.
Officials considered reintroducing wolves to eat the excess elk, but the state says it will support wolf recovery only if it occurs naturally, through migration (which may very well happen, by the way – in 2004, a wolf was hit on I-70 near Denver, in 2006 one was filmed in northern Colorado, and in 2007 “credible” sightings occurred in the park itself).
The park finally decided to cull the elk, in addition to fencing off some areas and studying potential birth control. Over the next month or so, certain areas of the park will be closed so that teams of sharpshooters can begin picking off up to 100 cow elk. The meat will be given to a mountain lion study and to winners of a lottery. "This is not a hunting activity,” said Park Superintendent Vaughn Baker in the National Parks Traveller. “… (T)his is not people out in the woods in orange vests as we envision hunting going on in Colorado's wilderness. It will be a very organized and a very controlled setting."
WildEarth Guardians has asked the Obama administration to halt the culling until it can reconsider the plan, especially given that Bush just lifted the ban on guns in national parks on his way out the door. And if some tourist’s kid ends up seeing Elsie Elk get whacked, it's a great opportunity for a lesson in carrying capacity and predator-prey balance.