Volunteers killed 462 elk in Theodore Roosevelt National Park this fall in the second year of the North Dakota park’s effort to cut the animals’ population where they face few natural predators.
“It went really smooth,” said Wade Jones, the park’s elk reduction coordinator.
The goal is to have a herd of 100 to 400 animals to lessen competition for forage among elk and other wildlife in the park, like deer, bison and feral horses. This winter, the park will fly a survey to count the elk and then determine plans for the 2012 reduction.
“We’ll definitely be over 400 with this spring’s calves,” Jones said.
It is likely that 2012 will be the final year for a large-scale elk reduction. This year, the breakdown of the elk killed was: 236 cows over 3 years old, 17 subadult elk, 151 yearlings of which 71 were bulls and 58 calves.
Removing the elk has been a benefit to food banks. Working through North Dakota Community Action, the park donated nearly 20,000 pounds of meat to Sportsmen Against Hunger to stock food pantries throughout the state. North Dakota American Indian tribes also received more than 25,000 pounds of meat. The remaining elk meat was made available, through a donation agreement with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, to volunteers who participated in the reduction effort.
Every elk removed from the park was tested for chronic wasting disease. In the past two years, more than 800 tests have come back from the lab and all have been negative. The park chose its more expensive volunteer shoots — estimated to cost about $300,000 a year — as opposed to using staff sharpshooters or rounding up elk and shipping them to slaughter. Although shipping elk to slaughter would have been the cheapest alternatives, there were concerns about spreading CWD.
Instead, the park decided to reduce the number of elk by using teams of up to four volunteers, led by park staff. This year, the teams shot elk in the park three days a week during a 10-week period that began on Oct. 18 and ran until Dec. 22.
The 46,000-acre South Unit’s backcountry, which is closed three days a week during the elk reduction, has been reopened to visitors all week.
“The elk reduction effort exceeded all of our expectations again this year,” Superintendent Valerie Naylor said in a prepared statement. “The National Park Service team leaders are commended for doing an exceptional job of providing for the safety of the volunteers in the field and surpassing fairly aggressive elk reduction goals.”
Two hundred volunteers were selected to assist with the program this fall out of about 820 applicants. That compared to more than 5,000 who applied the year before, significantly increasing the odds of being drawn this fall. Only 138 volunteers completed the five-day assignment. Twenty-seven decided not to participate, 20 failed the required shooting proficiency test and 15 left early because of the difficulty of the work.
The work included packing out 273 animals by backpack. Another 187 were packed out by mules. Two elk were unrecoverable after falling into sink holes.
Most of the volunteers were from North Dakota and Minnesota, but others came from as far away as Idaho and California.
Last fall and winter, park staff and volunteers killed 406 elk in the park during a 12-week period. This year, the work started two weeks earlier and ended four weeks earlier.
“Starting earlier, along with unusually good weather and a year of previous program experience, made for an even more efficient elk reduction,” Naylor said.
Volunteers will be able to apply this summer for the fall 2012 work. Those interested should check the park’s website at www.nps.gov/thro for more information.