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Park hunt dangerous, should be stopped, critics say
Grand Teton says elk reduction program keeps balance in complex herd.
By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: September 28, 2011
Critics of Grand Teton National Park’s elk hunt are clashing with authorities, saying the annual cull poses a danger to visitors and wildlife, including threatened grizzly bears.
Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott, supported by biologists and administrators, says her agency has made strides to ensure the hunt is safe. The park, forged in a compromise by Congress that allows the annual “elk reduction program,” cannot unilaterally end the shooting, nor is such a ban necessary, Scott says.
The standoff underscores the complex nature of managing the Jackson Elk Herd and the competing interests in a valley where wildlife viewing and a culture of hunting intersect.
Each fall, as elk migrate to the National Elk Refuge, wildlife managers seek to kill some 300 of them through the park hunt in the hopes of keeping that protected segment in balance with wapiti from the Teton Wilderness, south Yellowstone and the Gros Ventre Mountains.
This year, Grand Teton is offering 750 permits to hunters, who must be deputized as park rangers to hunt in the preserve. The season opens Oct. 8 and runs through Nov. 6.
The factors present in 1950, the time when the park was formed, made the hunt necessary, said Steve Cain, Grand Teton’s chief biologist. Those include winter feeding on the nearby National Elk Refuge, joint herd management between the federal government and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other factors.
“Those conditions exist today,” Cain said.
Balderdash, say critics.
“It was a compromise, but that was 60 years ago,” said Tom Mangelsen, a photographer and critic of the program. “They’ve got their reasons, but they’re outdated.”
Today, there are many more visitors in Grand Teton, and fall tourism has significantly increased, Mangelsen and his ilk say. Grizzly bears, still protected by the Endangered Species Act, have moved into the park and now feed regularly on the gut piles of hunter-killed elk. Wolves have been re-established and should reduce the need for hunters.
Adding urgency to critics’ case is the birth this year of five grizzly cubs that live with their mothers in the areas of Grand Teton where shooting will be allowed. If the cubs of bears 399 and 610 follow the pattern of matriarch 399, who scavenged the hunt area starting several years ago, seven grizzlies will be mixing with hunters this fall.
The critics call this a recipe for disaster. They see the gut piles as human-provided food, something Grand Teton otherwise prohibits, and an attractant drawing bears toward armed hunters.
“Any type of artificial feeding is wrong,” said Tim Mayo, a Jackson real estate agent who also is a photographer and a member of Mangelsen’s group.
Mangelsen fears it’s a matter of time before a hunter surprises a grizzly on a gut pile or carcass and one or the other, or both, get hurt.
Among hunters in the ecosystem, Gibson-Scott said, those in Grand Teton are likely the best prepared for bears. Those who draw permits receive a packet of information warning of grizzlies and are required to carry bear pepper spray, the one device proven most effective for repelling a bear, biologist Cain said.
“We are the only administration in the ecosystem that requires [hunters to carry] bear spray,” he said.
The park provides campsites with bear-proof food storage for hunters, prohibits archery hunting and artificial calls and contacts an estimated 30 percent of hunters, he said.
“It’s safer for bears than outside the park,” Cain said. “If we end the elk reduction program, the bears are going to go outside the park border, where the chances of being shot are higher.”
The death of bear 615, a daughter of 399 who was shot by a hunter just outside Grand Teton two years ago, is a “perfect example,” Cain said. Yet critics use her shooting as reason to discontinue the elk killing in Grand Teton.
Bear 615 learned to follow her mother to gut piles and carcasses, Mangelsen said. Bears have come to associate gunshots with food.
“It’s hypocritical,” Mangelsen said of park policy. “They should at least make them clean up the gut piles.”
While the critics, who loosely assemble as a group around Mangelsen and Mayo, say the superintendent can easily end the shooting, Gibson-Scott says that’s not the case.
“I do not have the authority to unilaterally discontinue the hunt,” she said.
Each year Gibson-Scott and her staff agree with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on how many elk will be targeted. The season is approved by everybody from Gov. Matt Mead to the secretary of the interior.
“It’s very dynamic,” Cain said of the annual proposed hunt numbers. “It responds to what’s going on with the herd.”
The park elk reduction program is in part responsible for trimming the herd from a peak of 16,236 in 1996 to 11,503 today. The objective set by the state is 11,000.
“What’s keeping us at that objective is the elk harvested in the park,” Cain said. Without the hunt, “it would be very difficult for the agencies managing the elk to keep [the herd] at objective.”
Refuge manager Steve Kallin agreed, saying a management plan adopted in 2007 calls for an average of 5,000 elk on the refuge in the winter.
“The whole thrust of the elk-bison plan is to achieve a healthy balance between the bison and elk herd size and the available winter range, which is primarily the refuge,” he said. The consequence of overpopulation on the refuge are disease and degraded habitat, among other things, he said.
Maintaining a balance among the four herd segments is a Wyoming Game and Fish goal, a state biologist said. Culling the park herd is necessary to keep it in proportion with elk from Yellowstone National Park, the Teton Wilderness and the Gros Ventre, said Doug Brimeyer, north Jackson biologist with Game and Fish.
If the park program stopped, “the southern portion of the Grand Teton National Park herd would grow at a faster rate than any other herd segment and would end up taking up a larger portion of the agencies’ objectives on the National Elk Refuge,” Brimeyer said. “The 5,000 objective wouldn’t be achievable.”
Either that or all the elk on the refuge would come from Grand Teton, with other lands depopulated, he said.
“The park hunt is an integral part of our management in order to achieve a balance maintaining elk numbers from the various herd segments,” Brimeyer said.
Critics and managers simply see the numbers differently.
The 300 elk killed amounts to a miniscule amount compared with the overall elk population in Wyoming, which is more than 105,000, Mangelsen’s group says. Given the public relation challenges of explaining the hunt, and the threat to visitors and to wildlife, “it is not worth 300 elk to put everything in danger,” said Dave Muscat, one of the critics.
Park biologist Cain, who understands how populations increase exponentially, says that’s wrong.
“Two hundred cows is a significant effect,” he said of the dynamics. “The reduction program in the park is going to continue to be necessary as long as elk are fed on the refuge.”
Mangelsen, Mayo and Muscat say Gibson-Scott has the authority to stop the park elk reduction program or portions of it for safety reasons. The way it currently is being run is a disgrace to the National Park Service and Jackson Hole, and dangerous to boot, they say.
Visitors are not adequately warned, and hunters deputized to kill elk have few ethics, critics say. The park’s own literature recommends visitors not hike in hunt areas, but that warning is buried in the park’s website, Mayo says.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, where elk overpopulation also is a problem, professional shooters or skilled rangers do the culling, the critics say. In contrast, in Grand Teton, residents near hunt areas have pried bullets out of the sides and roofs of their homes.
A hunter last year endangered Mayo by shooting in his direction, he said.
“They trash the park,” Mayo said. “It’s time for somebody to step up and be bold.”
Muscat said that needs to be the superintendent. The group at least wants more signs warning visitors, and fliers at entrance stations during the elk reduction program.
“What is it going to take, some little girl texting in the back seat getting her head blown off?” Mangelsen asked.
Grand Teton has prohibiting shooting within a quarter mile of most roads and some ranches and has limited where vehicles can stop. The efforts seek to limit the “firing line” aspect of the program and increase safety.
The park program also has seen a slow reduction in the amount of hunting in Grand Teton. In the 1970s and ’80s, the park made up to 3,000 permits available. Many, sometimes all, allowed the shooting of bulls.
An honest population reduction program targets cow elk, all agree. The park said it has moved in that direction.
This year, only 10 percent of the 750 permits will allow the shooting of bulls. Next year, Grand Teton expects to propose, and Game and Fish expects to agree to, a park season in which all antlered elk will be off limits.
“Every park was created by different legislation, Superintendent Gibson-Scott said. “Ours was born out of compromise. We are following the law that is a requirement for population management,” she said. “The elk reduction program is management, not a recreation activity.”