Elk Thinning Proposed In Colorado

Friday, March 9th 2007, 6:57 am

By: News On 6

DENVER (AP) _ Colorado's top wildlife officer would rather not see the burgeoning elk herd in Rocky Mountain National Park thinned by park employees hunting at night with rifles and silencers.

Instead, licensed hunters should be allowed to reduce the herd which is overgrazing and damaging the park habitat, state Division of Wildlife Director Bruce McCloskey said Thursday.

Officials at the park 60 miles northwest of Denver want to trim the herd to about 1,200 to 1,700 elk from an estimated 3,000. The solution recommended in a preliminary plan calls for employees or contractors to shoot elk at night or dawn with silencers, in part to keep the culling out of the public eye.

The estimated cost of the plan is $16 million to $18 million over 20 years and includes herding, fencing and monitoring the elk to prevent overgrazing. Projected costs likely will drop as the plan is refined, Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said.

The Colorado Wildlife Commission thinks it makes more sense for licensed hunters to cull the herd because it will cost less and the elk will be used.

``I think it's a lot more efficient and would cost a lot less money,'' McCloskey said.

Hunting is also the model for game management in North America, he added during a break in a Wildlife Commission meeting.

But hunting is prohibited in Rocky Mountain National Park and park officials oppose a public hunt as the way to reduce the herd, Patterson said.

``We understand that public hunting is important recreationally,'' he said, ``but there are 90 years of expectations from visitors that come to Rocky Mountain National Park that there will not be conflicts between hunters and recreational use of the park.''

Colorado Congressman Mark Udall has introduced a bill that would make it clear that Rocky Mountain National Park has the authority to allow hunters to help thin the elk herd.

North Dakota is wrestling with a similar problem in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Sen. Byron Dorgan and Gov. John Hoeven want the National Park Service to allow private hunters to help cull elk herds there. No decision is expected until the end of the year.

Elk overpopulation in Colorado and North Dakota stems from a lack of predators. Wolves and grizzly bears would force the elk to move around more, reducing the danger of overgrazing, and lead to some culling. But they haven't been in the park for years, and bans on hunting in national parks have resulted in big herds.

The elk in Rocky Mountain National Park chew up willows and aspen important to other species, such as songbirds and beavers. Densities as high as 260 elk per mile, are ``the highest concentrations ever documented for a free-ranging population in the Rocky Mountains,'' according to the park's management plan.

Advocates of restoring wolves to Colorado say the problem could be solved by releasing wolves in the park. The draft management plan released last spring said wolves would best meet environmental objectives and do the least damage, but doesn't recommend that option.

Colorado park officials are expected to release their final management plan in May or June, when the public would have another chance to comment.

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