Wildlife Management Institute

WMI Outdoor News Bulletin National Park Service Strives to Reduce Overabundant Elk and Deer
National Park Service Strives to Reduce Overabundant Elk and Deer PDF Print E-mail

image of Elk in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Credit: girlonaglide, FlickrAn annual elk hunt in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and a volunteer-based "elk reduction" project in western North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park got underway this month amid public criticism, reports the Wildlife Management Institute.  The issue is developing across several national parks as elk populations continue to grow.  It mirrors similar issues seen with deer populations in the East. Critics contend that the culling programs are counter to the National Park Service (NPS) mission to preserve wildlife within its units.  However, the agency contends that damage to native habitats that occurs when ungulate populations are too high warrants the culling operations.

The elk hunt in Grand Teton National Park is a highly regulated operation that was authorized when the park was created in 1950.  At the time, the effort was focused on reducing herd size prior to the animals moving to winter feed grounds in the National Elk Refuge in nearby Jackson Hole.  The program is responsible in part for trimming the herd from a peak of 16,236 in 1996 to 11,503 today.  The NPS says the conditions that led to the compromise allowing the hunt still exist.  The agency is working with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to reach the target population of 11,000 elk.  In recent years, the number of tags offered has been reduced and the focus has shifted primarily to antlerless tags.  This year, 750 tags were available, with the goal of reducing the herd by at least 300 animals.

Critics continue to oppose the program aggressively, citing a lack of consistency with overall NPS policy that typically does not allow hunting.  In addition, they claim the hunt is a significant threat to public safety—particularly, they say, due to grizzly bear habituation to hunters and hunting and consequent elk gut piles.  The critics argue further that the death of a human or a bear is likely should the hunt continue.  Conversely, park officials say that hunters in the park are better prepared for bears than hunters in any other part of the ecosystem.  The cull hunters are required to carry bear spray, provide campsites with bear-proof food storage.  Also, archery hunting and artificial calls are prohibited.

“It’s safer for bears than outside the park,” said Steve Cain, Senior Wildlife Biologist with the park.  “If we end the elk reduction program, the bears are going to go outside the park border, where the chances of being shot are higher.”

Elsewhere, a10-week elk reduction effort got underway in Theodore Roosevelt National Park on October 17.  Two hundred volunteers were randomly selected and required to meet shooting accuracy standards and certify that they were physically capable of withstanding the difficult conditions.  Then, using GPS tracking devises to located collared elk, the hunters joined park officials and other volunteers to find elk herd concentrations. 

The goal is to reduce the elk populations "quickly, efficiently, and humanely,” and the focus is placed on removing cows and a few yearling bulls.  Culled animals are being sent to a North Dakota Game and Fish laboratory for testing for Chronic Wasting Disease.  The volunteers receive a portion of the elk meat and the rest is sent to local food banks.

"We look forward to another successful year of elk reduction in the park," said Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor.  "Last year, we removed 406 elk with no injuries or accidents.  Our goal is to have a safe and successful effort in 2011."

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado also has an elk herd reduction program begun in 2009.  Volunteer sharpshooters do the culling.  The ultimate goal of the park's Elk and Vegetative Management Plan is to have 600-800 elk in the park subpopulation and 1,000 to 1,300 in the Estes Park subpopulation.  The park carried out elk culling operations during winter months the last two years and anticipates another this winter.

Overbrowsing by wild ungulates doesn't just occur with elk in the West.  Park units in the East have adopted culling programs for white-tailed deer that were damaging native forest stands.  In the mid-1990s, Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg National Military Park and adjacent Eisenhower National Historic Site adopted a deer management program that included culling to try to reduce herd populations that had ballooned to 325 deer per forested square mile.  Optimal population levels, as established in the plan, are closer to 25 per forested square mile. 

In addition, the NPS recently used sharpshooters to remove whitetails at Valley Forge National Historical Park in southeastern Pennsylvania and at Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland.  Similar deer management plans are being developed for the Monocacy and Antietam National Battlefields in Maryland, as well as at Manassas National Battlefield Park in northern Virginia.  (jas)