Overcrowding causes disease to spread quicker and overgrazing to occur
BISMARCK, N.D. -- The elk in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, despite being creatures of grace and beauty, present an ugly problem. Without predators to cull the herd, the number of elk have eclipsed the ability of the habitat in the park to sup...
BISMARCK, N.D. -- The elk in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, despite being creatures of grace and beauty, present an ugly problem. Without predators to cull the herd, the number of elk have eclipsed the ability of the habitat in the park to support the animals, among the largest wild creatures in North America. Elk feed on mostly grasses, stoking a four-chambered stomach and, with increasing numbers, could overgraze the park.
The question that's become ugly is: How does the National Park Service reduce the number of elk from about 1,000 to 200?
While reducing elk numbers by opening up the park to hunting would be the most cost-effective and one of the most efficient ways to cull the herd, it isn't politically practical in the short term, or perhaps even in the long term.
The NPS should round up 250 to 300 elk annually for five years and take them to an off-park slaughter facility, and the meat, if it clears tests for disease, should be distributed to food pantries and programs for low-income citizens. It would progressively reduce the overgrazing by the elk in the park.
It would avoid using any long, drawn-out and unsatisfying process using volunteers and federal employees as sharpshooters to kill the elk in a quasi-hunting strategy bereft of sporting ethic.
Rounding the elk up and slaughtering them might seem insensitive, but doing so quickly and professionally would benefit the elk, who become more vulnerable to disease as their population in the park increases, and the habitat, which needs to recover for benefit not just of the elk in the park but for deer and buffalo, too. Reducing the elk population resolves the immediate problem, but the NPS must establish a management system that keeps elk numbers in check.
In North Dakota and many other states, hunting has been used as an effective tool in managing wildlife numbers. But the federal law that prohibits hunting in national parks, which has been in place for nearly 100 years, was motivated in part to protect wildlife from being wiped out. When national parks were first established, wildlife numbers had plummeted to critical levels, and at that time, who could have foreseen the reverse as a problem in 2009?
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department proposed having an elk hunting season in Theodore Roosevelt National Park when the NPS was developing its alternatives, but that NDGF alternative was not included in the draft recently offered to the public. Nor could the NPS offer it, given the existing legal prohibition on hunting in national parks. But it would work, and work well.
The case should be made to the general public and to Congress that hunting provides an efficient and cost-effective way to help manage national parks. The case needs to be made that in particular parks, facing specific issues, hunting benefits wildlife, taxpayers, parks and hunters. It will be a hard sell. It could take a long time. The elk can't wait that long.