Saturday, April 08, 2006

Colorado Park's wolf idea causes worries

Rocky Mountain National Park looking to trim elk numbers

By Brandon Johansson

With an elk population nearly double what biologists say it should be, Rocky Mountain National Park officials are looking for ways to manage the overgrown population. Officials at the park, which straddles the Continental Divide in Larimer and Grand counties, are considering a variety of options to cut back on elk. Re-introducing gray wolves is one of the options being considered.

But the prospect of re-introducing the carnivores, which were eradicated from Colorado more than 60 years ago, has raised concerns from Colorado ranchers, including those in Moffat County. Les Hampton, a former Moffat County commissioner working with the Colorado Division of Wildlife on wolf issues, said this week that he is worried about the U.S. Park Service's plans. Hampton told the Moffat County commissioners Tuesday that re-introducing wolves in Rocky Mountain National Park could lead to wolves being re-introduced at other national parks, including Dinosaur National Monument. "I don't like what's going on," Hampton said.

Too many elk

Kyle Patterson, a spokeswoman for Rocky Mountain National Park, said the Park Service has spent the past decade researching the effects of elk on the park's vegetation. The elk population in the park and the surrounding Estes Valley is between 2,200 and 3,000 animals, Patterson said. The Park Service's target population is between 1,200 and 2,100 animals. The size of the elk herds combined with the fact that, without any predators, elk aren't as migratory as they would naturally be hurts vegetation and damages habitat for other animals, Patterson said. "Our elk don't have to look over their shoulders," she said. The elk are particularly hard on aspen and willow trees, Patterson said.

The Park Service is considering a variety of options for controlling the population, including using professional hunters and park staff to kill some of the animals, using fertility treatments to control birth rate and re-introducing wolves. "We understand there are some very strong feelings on all of these alternatives," Patterson said.

The Park Service has not decided how many wolves will be released, Patterson said. But the number will be very small and the animals will be tracked and confined to the park, she said. Although a small number of wolves will kill some of the elk, Patterson said the wolves could also help by making the elk population less stationary. Patterson stressed that the Park Service's plans are centered on elk and vegetation management, not on re-introducing wolves, and that nothing is set in stone. "We have certainly not made any decision yet," Patterson said. The Park Service is expected to come out with an environmental impact statement on their elk management plan in the coming weeks.

'Lot of similarities'

If wolves are used to control the elk population in Rocky Mountain National Park, Hampton said, it could be a precursor to wolves in Moffat County. "There are an awful lot of similarities," Hampton said about Dinosaur National Monument and Rocky Mountain National Park, both of which are managed by the U.S. Park Service.

Mary Risser, the superintendent at the monument, said officials at Dinosaur have not given any serious consideration to re-introducing wolves. The park is in the process of determining what its elk population is, Risser said. "We need bottom-line information that we just don't have right now," Risser said. Without concrete population estimates, Risser said she couldn't make a guess as to whether the monument had more elk than it should.

According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Northwest Colorado in general has elk populations well above what biologists say they should be. If Dinosaur officials wanted to re-introduce wolves, they would have to go through the same years-long public process that Rocky Mountain National Park is going through, Patterson said.

No hunting

Hampton said he agrees that there are too many elk in Rocky Mountain National Park. "Something has to be done, clearly," Hampton said. But there are better options than re-introducing wolves, Hampton said, including allowing public hunting in the park. Federal law prohibits public hunting in the park, but Hampton said if hunting were allowed there, it could control the population and bring in revenue.

Patterson said public hunting isn't an option for controlling the elk population. It would take an act of Congress to allow hunters in the park, Patterson said. To maintain the experience for other visitors, hunting could only be allowed in a very small area, Patterson said. Plus, because the elk at the park are comfortable around people, there couldn't be a fair hunt, she said. Taking the elk and moving them to other areas also is out of the question because of fears of chronic wasting disease spreading from the park to other areas, she said.

Hampton argued that re-introducing wolves would have a similar effect as transporting the elk. "These elk are not going to respect the park boundaries," Hampton said. "They are going to move away from the predators."

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