Kevin Moloney for The New York TimesI
n the town of Estes Park, Colo., elk graze among the golfers on a golf course.
May 28, 2006
 

Plan for Sharpshooters to Thin Colorado Elk Herd Draws Critics

ESTES PARK, Colo., May 25 The elk that roam Rocky Mountain National Park in their slow-moving majesty have become a signature attraction for tourists, and an economic driver of the 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 itself has become an elk playground as well. The animals regularly stop traffic a phenomenon beloved by visitors but they are also becoming more and more of a nuisance, and occasionally even a threat. The chief of police, Lowell Richardson, said he had been chased around 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 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 elk, mostly at night in the park, using sharpshooters with silencers.

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

Estes Park itself, meanwhile, is bracing for the elk themselves to react and adapt by moving even more into the community than they are now. Town officials and residents say that when the park is no longer a safety zone for the animals, as it has been since the 1960's when the last herd-reduction program was abandoned, the town will become the inevitable refuge.

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

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

What was equally clear at the sometimes raucous public meeting was that love of elk, love of the park and passionately defended positions about how to resolve the problem go hand in hand. Every idea posited from one side allowing a hunt, allowing predation from wolves, allowing the elk population to grow and not worrying about the ecological consequences was vehemently denounced by somebody else on the elk-opinion spectrum. Park officials say they plan to announce a decision on a plan 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 fireworks at the meeting.

Value judgments about the relationships of 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 tame behavior, with no predators to keep them wily, is utterly unelklike to a wildlife biologist. They are not 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 one individual 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 for full-grown bull, 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 shoulder-rubbing proximity to the herd. More people are living closer than ever, and in greater numbers, to places like Rocky Mountain National Park, which was set aside for a glimpse of the wild.

When gray wolves were introduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, by contrast, advocates for the experiment could argue that the buffer zones of national forests, and the park's huge size, made it big enough and isolated enough that nature could be natural in keeping down elk and deer populations.

Rocky Mountain National Park, at just over 400 square miles, is only about one-eighth as big as Yellowstone, and 2.4 million people in the Denver metropolitan area live within a two- or three-hour drive.

"The lesson is that the more we ring these parks with other activities and encroach on them, the more we're setting ourselves up for difficult issues," said David K. Skelly, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale.

Mr. Shirk, the town planner, said his professional concern about what might happen to his community as a result of elk reduction was balanced against the love he has for the animals.

"I live here; I want to see the elk in my backyard," he said.