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Elk find no home on the grasslands


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

When rangers at North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park culled the park's burgeoning elk herd early this year, they sent about 200 of the animals to Kentucky. There, the state wildlife division reintroduced the once-native animals to parts of the Appalachian state.

This struck North Dakota wildlife advocates as ironic because elk, reintroduced to the park in 1983, also once roamed wild in the badlands and grasslands outside the boundary. But the only elk that roam those lands now have jumped the park's seven-foot fence and live on borrowed time.

State law prohibits permanent elk populations outside the national park, and escapees are quickly shot by hunters or landowners who say elk eat their crops.

But some say elk could be a new source of cash for ranchers. Last year, a group of ranchers, land managers and environmentalists got together to seek common ground in grasslands management, and came up with the concept of an elk cooperative.

The cooperative would pay participating landowners for every elk shot on their land.

"You would be encouraging ranchers to enhance elk habitat on their land, allow public access for hunting and you'd also be providing a new revenue stream for ranchers who are struggling to stay on their land," says Noel Poe, superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Some ranchers have already begun guiding out-of-state hunters to supplement their income from livestock.

But the North Dakota Game and Fish Department sternly resists any scheme to generate private revenue on the back of state-managed wildlife. Such institutional opposition and the skepticism of ranchers who fear the Park Service is trying to expand its boundaries, quickly sent the cooperative concept the way of the one-time native elk, shot down by those who saw no place for it.

"The wildlife is a resource that belongs to the people of this state and it's not our place to let private individuals profit from it," says Michael McKenna, the Game and Fish Department's chief of natural resources. "If we're going to do that, why don't we just start renting out our state Suburbans?"

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Michael Milstein