Park, town struggle with plans to thin elk herd


ESTES PARK, Colo. -- The elk that roam across Rocky Mountain National Park in their slow-moving majesty have become a signature attraction for tourists and an economic driver of the local economy in this town at the park's edge.

But the animals leave some mighty big hoof prints. The park's biology has been skewed by elk overpopulation, which biologists say is squeezing out even butterflies and beavers, both of which need the aspen groves that the elk herd of perhaps 3,000 animals decimates in its search for food.

The town has become an elk playground as well. The animals regularly stop traffic - a phenomenon beloved by visitors - but they are also becoming more of a nuisance, and occasionally even a threat. The chief of police, Lowell Richardson, said he has been chased more than once on the golf course. A woman was seriously injured several years ago when she got between a mother elk and her calf.

But now the town-park-elk triangle, with its elements of economics and elk biology in equal measure, is about to change profoundly, and few are happy. Park administrators have proposed a 20-year program of herd reduction and management that would involve shooting hundreds of animals, mostly at night in the park using sharpshooters with silencers.

Critics of the plan advocate bringing back wolves to control the population, or using recreational hunters or contraception. Park officials say they have studied every option and that "lethal reduction," as the plan is called, is the best way to bring the number of elk down to a sustainable 1,200 or so.

Estes Park is bracing for the elk to react and adapt - by moving even farther into the community. Town officials and residents say that when the park is no longer a safety zone for the animals, as it has been since the 1960s when the last herd-reduction program was abandoned, the town will become an inevitable refuge. Discharging a firearm within city limits is illegal.

"There's a lot of concern," said Dave Shirk, a town planner who attended a public meeting on the herd-reduction plan Thursday night. Shirk said he believes that an elk exodus into the streets of Estes Park is inevitable. The question, he said, is whether the impact would be tempered by the proposed reduction in elk numbers.

"That's our hope, that's our thought," he said.

What was equally clear at the occasionally raucous public meeting was that love of the elk and the park and passionately defended positions about how to resolve the elk problem go hand in hand. Every idea posited from one side was vehemently denounced by someone on the other side of the elk-opinion spectrum. Park officials say they plan to announce a decision late this year or early next.

"The park is in a no-win situation," said David Beldus, a retired teacher and former national park ranger, as he sat watching the debate at the meeting. "No matter what, the audience is hostile."

Judgments about the relationships between humans and animals and the imagery of the national parks also color the debate, wildlife biologists and public policy experts say.

"The national parks are considered special by most Americans, the place where we should let natural processes work as much as possible," said Robert A. Garrott, a professor of ecology at Montana State University in Bozeman.

And in Rocky Mountain National Park, natural is a tough thing to pin down. The elk certainly do not qualify. Their placid, tame behavior, with no predators to keep them wily, is unusual to a wildlife biologist. They are not even native. Most of the herd is believed to be descended from elk brought to Colorado in 1913 and 1914 from Wyoming after the local herds were driven to near extinction. The park was established in 1915.

The aspen groves, by contrast, which propagate by cloning through shoots, are thousands of years old, dating from the end of the last ice age, and are uniquely connected and adapted to the specific life history of the park's lands, said Therese Johnson, the park's lead biologist on the elk issue.

Deer culling at night, using night-vision goggles and silencers, is well established in many parts of the country. But park officials acknowledge that trying the practice with elk, which can weigh upward of 700 pounds, two or three times the size of a common white-tail deer, is new territory.

Human population growth ultimately underscores all the considerations, epitomized by Estes Park and its proximity to the herd. More people are living closer than ever to places such as Rocky Mountain, which were set aside for a glimpse - however refracted and distorted - of the wild.

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