Originally appeared in Fort Collins Weekly
1 June 2007
One of Estes Park’s main tourist attractions – its majestic elk herds – is too successful for its own good. Elk have overrun Rocky Mountain National Park, seriously degrading the ecosystem, especially the streamside stands of willow and aspen. They spill into the town, trampling gardens, snarling traffic, terrorizing golfers. Some elk even mosey down into west Loveland to graze on the irrigated fields there. We must act soon, because once they discover Loveland’s lush golf courses, they’ll never leave.
This summer, the National Park Service will decide how to thin the herds, now estimated at about 3,000 elk. In true bureaucratic fashion, the solution is likely to please nobody. Hunters want to shoot many of the elk. Some suggest elk birth control. Park officials prefer letting professional sharpshooters kill elk, at night, away from prying tourist eyes and ears. But state wildlife managers admit the best solution from an ecological standpoint – reintroducing wolves, the natural predators of the elk – is not politically correct among the state’s politically powerful ranching, farming and hunting communities.
Elk were hunted to extinction by settlers in the Estes Valley, and were reintroduced in 1913, just before the National Park was created. Wildlife managers thinned the herds until public outcry (“Mommy, why is the ranger shooting Bambi?”) forced an end to the practice in 1968. The elk population exploded, as did the number of population control studies.
There are many problems with letting hunters cull the herd. First, hunting is prohibited in National Parks, and for good reason. Hunters already have millions of square miles of Forest Service, BLM and private land to play on, and National Park visitors have the right to recreate free of fear of some orange-clad drunk mistaking them for a wayward quail and blasting them in the face. Hunters will naturally want to shoot the biggest trophy animals, mostly the bulls, while natural selection would pick out the weak, the old, the sick, and the small. I admit my anti-hunting bias: I don’t consider killing things fun, and I don’t get why some people can’t enjoy Nature without shooting it full of holes.
The obvious answer is to reintroduce wolves. Wolves have gotten a bad rap for centuries, from Little Red Riding Hood to the Three Little Pigs. But in the last century, there has been exactly one documented case of Big, Bad Wolves killing a human in North America, while we peace-loving humans have virtually wiped out these highly intelligent, social animals (at least the ones we didn’t turn into poodles and retrievers). Wolves would keep the herds on the move and on their toes, making the park more natural and less like a giant elk feedlot.
Besides restoring some wild to our local wilderness, reintroducing wolves would be a huge tourist draw. Tourists flock to Yellowstone National Park to see the wolves, and since our park is much closer to population centers, we can expect an even bigger economic benefit. Wolves are smart enough to know that interactions with humans are generally fatal, and tend to keep away from us.
It’s true that wolves will not necessarily respect park boundaries, and as their numbers increase they will spread into adjoining mountains and forests. Good! Colorado has millions of acres of prime wolf habitat and can support a substantial population, which would complete the link between existing wolf populations in Wyoming and New Mexico. Wolves may eat livestock if they can’t get their preferred meal (deer and elk), but the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife has already volunteered to compensate ranchers for any losses. Besides, without wolves, coyotes proliferate, and they are much more likely to prey on livestock and pets than wolves are.
Polls show 60 to 70% of Coloradoans favor wolf reintroduction. Let’s produce a “Restore the Wolf” specialty license plate with proceeds paying for the program. I bet they would be a howling success.