Too much of a good thing?
By Ralph Maughan On October 2, 2006 · 7 Comments · In Elk, Public Land Management, Public Lands
This is a National Parks Conservation Association story about the overabundance of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park.
This is hardly a brand new revelation. However, the story is well written.
Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.
7 Responses to Too much of a good thing?
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Can not they not reintroduce wolves and/or grizzlies there? Just curious.
Below is an article I wrote for the Fort Collins Audubon Society. We supported the reintroduction of wolves as the preferred alternative …..
Unlikely Allies: Birds and Wolves
Rocky Mountain National Park is a jewel. Living so close to so many majestic mountains is what keeps many of us here in Colorado. These same mountains beckon more people each year to put down roots here. While we would think, and hope, that places like Rocky Mountain National Park would be immune from the ill-effects of rampant growth in Colorado, a closer look suggests that this is not necessarily the case.
After years of lobbying by Enos Mills, President Wilson designated this land as Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in January of 1915. Most of the 265,000 acres that now make up RMNP were in the original designation. While the mountains and wildlife may have been the primary reason for designation as a National Park, the park has always been a vital refuge for birds. This importance has been recognized by its recent designation as a globally Important Bird Area (IBA) by the American Bird Conservancy and as an Aububon IBA. As we all know, RMNP is more than just pretty mountains.
The desire to create a wildlife refuge in RMNP was brought on by over harvesting of big game. Around 1900, elk were eliminated from the RMNP area due to over-hunting and had to be reintroduced from the Yellowstone elk herd. Wolves and grizzlies had also been eliminated, but the thought of reintroducing predators would have been considered preposterous at the time. Without predators, the elk population grew rapidly and as early as 1930 the Park Service noted a deterioration of vegetation due to overgrazing on the elk’s winter range. The ecosystems contained in Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, and Estes Park bore the brunt of the elk’s overgrazing.
The adverse impacts of this overgrazing have been felt through the entire ecosystem, right down to the birds. These wide riparian areas supported active beaver dams which held water in meadows and helped produce intermittent flooding. Since the elk prevented willows and aspen from gaining a mature size, the beavers had no mature growth to harvest. The beaver were the first casualties of the elk overgrazing and are now largely absent from RMNP. Without beavers to regulate the water flow through these riparian areas, the water table dropped, the meadows dried considerably, and the amount and structure of the vegetation dropped substantially. The higher stream flow rates led to bank erosion and, as a result, the streams in RMNP straightened and are now 50% shorter today than they were in 1946.
The loss of these willows and aspen communities has a profound effect on avian biodiversity. Control studies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have show a 50% reduction in avian migrant density due to ungulate overgrazing. RMNP would be much healthier (and would be much better birding habitat!) if the elk populations were controlled. The Park officials have long recognized this and are ready to act. The question now is what means should we use to control the elk populations?
Many options are under consideration at the moment: birth control, fencing out riparian areas, hazing, and wolf reintroduction. All of these methods have their strengths and weaknesses, but studies emerging from Yellowstone are tipping the balance in favor of the wolves. While wolves generally reduce elk numbers, we are beginning to realize that the impact wolves have on elk behavior might be more profound than their impact on elk numbers. This “ecology of fear” keeps elk out of areas they deem dangerous due to poor escape routes, such as riparian zones. Simply knowing wolves are in the area modifies the way elk behave and leads to riparian rejuvenation.
We are committed to protecting the habitat of Important Bird Areas; these areas are the last best refuges for bird species that are having an increasingly hard time adapting to our ever growing urbanization. The natural way to restore the balance and ecosystem function in RMNP is to reintroduce wolves, and the only real impediment to this reintroduction is the urbanization around the Park. The complexity of the natural world continues to teach us new and exciting lessons, and in this case it seems to be teaching us that, in some places, birds need wolves.
The writing on the wall is obvious: reintroduce wolves to the park and adjacent lands!
RMNP is approximately 10% of the size of YNP. The Park boundaries are heavily developed to the west, and the land to the east is almost entirely private. It might be possible to dump a couple dozen wolves in there and push the elk around some, but I’d bet that wolf mortality would be very high and it would be difficult to sustain the population over time (with enough animals to make a dent in the elk population, anyway.) When this is combined with the huge political obstacles, I don’t think that wolves in RMNP is going to happen.
In general, until Colorado decides to get serious about land conservation in big chunks, wolf reintroduction is going to be tough. Maybe it could happen down from the San Juans to the Sangres, but anywhere else…unlikely. Take a trip into any of CO’s “wilderness” areas, and you’ll see that they just get hammered by the public, even the larger ones. It’s nothing like Central Idaho, Northern MT, or the Yellowstone backcountry at all.
To me, an isolated population of two dozen wolves in the Flattops or the San Juans doesn’t really make for a “successful” reintroduction. A better hope is for a few to move down into Browns Park/Dinosaur and the Yampa Canyons from Wyoming and then disperse over time.
The last biological study showed that CO could support about 1000 wolves — which is more than ID has right now.
There are more elk in CO than in any other state.
Wolves don’t need vast tracks of wilderness (though CO has many) — what they need is elk to eat and not to be shot.
Wolves will get to RMNP — it is just a matter of when and how.
There is a tremendous prey base for wolves in Colorado.
I think the major problem would be with the many dogs that inhabit the many mountain sub-divisions of the state.
As has already been pointed out, the wolves would not remain contined to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is far too small no matter how many elk live there. Wolves wander regardless of the prey base.
I agree that there’s plenty to eat; it’s the not-being-shot part that will be the limiting factor. Dogs, development, traditional ranching and yahoos out looking to blast something will keep the numbers way down. Look how tough it’s been to keep the AZ and NM wolf program going beyond just a handful of critters. There’s plenty of elk down there, too.
My point is that it takes big chunks of country to keep them alive in significant numbers, and food sources don’t really matter that much.
As for “vast tracts of wilderness”, I guess it’s all in how you look at it. As a CO resident who spends time in the backcountry, it seems pretty small and tame, compared to the Flathead River country, the Frank Church, or the GYE. Certainly sees many times more people. I’d love to see wolves in CO, but 1000 is a pipe dream at this point.