Elk herds under control at Rocky Mountain

This photo shows the results after two years of having a fence keep elk out of sensitive riparian habitat in Rocky Mountain National Park. Park officials estimate 600–800 elk winter in the park.

A program combining proactive fence building with restricted elk removal has brought elk herds under control in Rocky Mountain National Park.

For nearly 70 years park officials in this 415-square-mile park straddling the Continental Divide have been concerned about elk overgrazing the park’s habitat, but without hunting or natural predators the park is an elk refuge.

Park spokesperson Kyle Patterson said the herds reached their high in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 elk wintered in the park and the surrounding area, including the community of Estes Park.

“The overpopulation was hammering the willow communities in the park,” Patterson said. “That’s why we started on the elk and vegetation management plan.”

A December 2007 management plant sought to manage the too-numerous elk and called for a tightly controlled culling program to reduce elk numbers.

The park also began building high-fence elk exclosures around key riparian habitat.

“Our research showed that during the period of time when we had our highest population on the winter range the elk were more sedentary and more concentrated than they normally would be,” said John Mack, Rocky’s branch chief of natural resources. “The outcome was a high browsing rate on the willow and aspen.”

Patterson said part of the elk problem was solved in March 2003 and again in 2006 when storms dropped up to four feet of snow on the park. Thousands of elk left the park for lower ground and haven’t returned.

One result of that migration is hunters in game management unit 20 in 2006 and 2007 saw record elk harvests, Patterson said.

The exclosures also have proven effective, Mack said.

“We focused our exclosures on those riparian areas in the winter-range areas,” he said. “We’ve been collecting data on the return of the willows and aspen to those areas and our data suggest a trend in the right direction.”

The plan called for wintering elk numbers in the 600–800 range, and starting in January of 2009 trained volunteers working with park personnel and Colorado Parks and Wildlife removed 52 elk, Patterson said. Another 79 were removed as part of chronic wasting disease and fertility research.

The meat from healthy animals was donated to a local food bank, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said.

“Last year our population modeling showed we were well within the 600–800 population objective on the winter range, and we didn’t cull,” Patterson said. “And again this year we’re at the low end and not doing any culling.”


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