Wolves could thin Colorado elk, group says | VailDaily.com

Wolves could thin Colorado elk, group says

Judith Kohler
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Ed Andrieski/AP A herd of elk graze in Rocky Mountain National Park in this Friday, Jan. 18, 2008 file photo.

DENVER, Colorado – An environmental group is suing the federal government because it says releasing wolves wasn’t seriously considered as an alternative to shooting elk to reduce the growing herd in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Denver by WildEarth Guardians , a coalition of Western environmental groups, claims federal officials ignored scientific evidence showing that releasing wolves in Yellowstone National Park has improved the ecosystem by returning the natural predator.

The lawsuit, filed with the help of student attorneys at the University of Denver law school, also contends the Park Service is obligated to conserve endangered species.

Wolves were native to Colorado but were eliminated from the state by the 1930s after ranchers, government agents and others shot, trapped and poisoned the predator.

“The Park Service should accept that their elk problem stems directly from a lack of wolves in the region,” said Rob Edward of WildEarth Guardians. “It’s time to restore the balance of nature in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The plan approved last year to cull the elk herd in Rocky Mountain National Park about 70 miles northwest of Denver calls for sharpshooters to kill up to 200 elk annually over 20 years. The number killed each year will depend on the herd’s size, which fluctuates.

The herd, safe from hunters and most predators, has grown up to 3,000 elk. The goal is a herd of about 1,200 to 1,700 elk.

Park officials want to thin the herd because overgrazing by elk has nearly wiped out aspens and willows, prime habitat for beavers and birds. Elk also roam through the yards and gardens of homes outside the park, increasing chances for conflicts with people.

Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit because she hadn’t seen it. She said park officials considered using wolves to reduce the herd and keep the animals on the move so they couldn’t damage the vegetation.

The preliminary plan for Rocky Mountain National Park said wolves would best meet environmental objectives and do the least damage, but didn’t recommend that option.

“We looked at wolves as one of many tools that we could use,” Patterson said.

But the Park Service would need support and cooperation from other state and federal agencies, and that didn’t exist, Patterson added.

“Rocky Mountain National Park doesn’t contain a sufficient land base to contain wolves in the long term,” Patterson said. “Without support from other agencies in the region, there’s no assurance the wolf population would survive.”

Edward of WildEarth Guardians said the Park Service doesn’t need the OK of the state or other federal agencies to pursue the return of wolves.

“The Park Service has the strongest conservation mandate of any agency,” Edward said.

North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park faces a similar dilemma, where the public is pressuring park managers to enlist hunters rather than taxpayer-funded shooters to reduce the elk herd.

Wolves are being removed from the federal endangered species list in the Northern Rockies because their numbers have grown to an estimated 1,500 in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming since a few wolves were released in the Yellowstone area 13 years ago to restore the species.

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