Government sharpshooters may soon stalk elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, picking off one animal at a time. They promise to do their shooting in the early morning, so as not to disturb park visitors, and officials have assured the press that they plan to preserve the herds' "viewability" throughout all of this. After all, the elk are one of the park's main attractions.
Some 500 miles south of the park, federal officials occasionally shoot or trap Mexican gray wolves after the canines have killed three or more domestic animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service has also initiated a program to allow citizens to shoot wolves with paintballs in order to scare them away.
Though both situations sound bizarre, perhaps even farcical, they are both very real. And both use absurdly unnatural methods in an attempt to bring out-of-whack nature back into a natural balance.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, the elk killing - or, in Park Service lingo, culling - is intended to protect native willow and aspen groves from hungry ungulates that number in the thousands. The elk that aren't shot will be kept away from native flora by fences, herded away by dogs, and scared away by park staff shooting blank ammo. This is all necessary because, after elk and their predators were hunted out of the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hunting was banned in the park. Then elk were reintroduced. The elk returned with a vengeance; their less politically correct predators never did.
Down south, the feds shoot or trap wolves as one of the more twisted parts of a government program to bring the wolves back to the wild; by removing wolves that get "three strikes" by killing livestock, a hostile populace is kept somewhat appeased. Mexican wolves once roamed across the Southwest, but beginning in the 1800s, hunters whittled down their numbers. By the 1970s, when the Mexican wolf was listed under the Endangered Species Act, it was nearly extinct. The reintroduction program, which John Dougherty explores in this issue's cover story, began in 1998, to the extreme displeasure of many of the folks who live in the recovery area.
Ten years later, the wolf program has devolved into a fiasco. Wolves have died in alarming numbers. Some were shot by poachers, some were accidentally killed after they were trapped, some were shot because they developed a taste for beef. Today, the number of wolves remains far below biologists' goals, and just recently another pack was trapped and another one vanished altogether. The problem, as Dougherty discovers, is anything but simple: Politics have crowded the wolves into unrealistic boundaries, bad genetic stock has left weak animals in the wild, and scared and angry ranchers aren't about to give the wolf, or the wildlife agencies, any breaks.
If only the Mexican wolves could be transplanted to Rocky Mountain National Park, both problems might be solved - the elk would get eaten, and the wolves would have some insulation from ranchland (wolves released in Yellowstone ultimately thrived). Unfortunately, northern Colorado is far from the Mexican wolf's range, and though park officials have considered a strictly limited, intensively managed reintroduction of wolves into the park as a tool for culling elk, it will likely never happen.
I can't help but believe that both the elk program up north and the wolf program down south will ultimately fail. Because in both cases, we're trying to fix our mistakes using the same approach that caused the problems in the first place.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.