Sportsmen advocates and others are challenging Grand Teton National Park to change its regulations after a coordinated elk drive last week led to a roadside firing line in plain sight.
The Nov. 19 incident, which resulted in six citations, was preventable and was the product of novice hunters who have few places to go far from roads, said Bob Wharff, executive director of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.
“I don’t like to say that we need to hide it from the public,” Wharff said of the park’s hunt. “But the reality is we do need to be sensitive to the fact that some people come to the park not knowing there’s a hunt.”
A guide before turning professional advocate, Wharff urged park managers to start screening hunters for proficiency, consider allowing volunteer guides and do away with some of their “funky” rules.
“They’ve taken what is more of a bureaucratic approach,” he said. “You can have seven bullets, and you can only take one shot at a running elk.
“To me, I never shoot at running elk unless I have one that’s been hit,” Wharff said. “That’s the thing that bothers me. They’re thinking like bureaucrats rather than thinking about the application and what they’re trying to do.”
The elk drive and barrage of bullets near Kelly last week drew flak from many, both online and in the streets. Wharff fears the incident gave hunting a black eye.
In the end two spike bulls were illegally killed. One hunter was cited for shooting a spike and for firing more than once at a running herd, and four others were ticketed for shooting from a roadway.
No hunters were cited for driving about 100 elk out of a closed area, which photographer Tom Mangelsen said he witnessed. Investigating rangers could not substantiate that incident, park officials said.
Grand Teton officials said Tuesday that the Nov. 19 herd shooting incident was not an indication of typical hunter behavior in the park.
“This year I think we’ve had 129 harvested elk inside the national park, and the vast majority [of hunters] did it as we would expect based on the conditions of the permit,” Chief Ranger Michael Nash said.
The park’s hunt, called a “reduction program,” was mandated by 1950 legislation that created Grand Teton National Park.
Hunting, the legislation says, shall be permitted when “it is found necessary for the purpose of proper management and protection of the elk.”
The activity, a unique one for a national park, is reviewed each year and jointly administered and managed by the National Park Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
In recent years the park hunt has been scaled back significantly, park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said.
From 3,000 permits to 650
“As recently as the mid-1990s there were as many as 3,000 permits that were authorized,” Skaggs said Tuesday. “The last few years we’ve whittled that down to 650 authorized permits.”
A bull elk hunt was also phased out in recent years.
Park hunters are subject to more-stringent regulations than elsewhere in the Equality State. They must carry bear spray and use nonlead ammunition, and they are restricted to carrying seven rounds.
“This is one of the most highly managed hunts that you’ll find in the state of Wyoming,” Skaggs said.
A group of Jackson Hole wildlife photographers in the valley think that the changes haven’t gone far enough.
In late October residents Tim Mayo and Kent Nelson filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., that seeks to stop not only Teton park’s hunt but also the practice of feeding elk on public land in Northwest Wyoming.
The claim targets at the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Department. It argues that the park hunt violates Grand Teton’s enabling legislation, the Park Service’s foundational 1916 Organic Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The park’s hunt would be better off, Wharff said, if there were expanding opportunities in the backcountry, away from roads.
“I think the fact that they have limited access ... it means that you can’t get away from the public eye too well, which means you have to do those things in full view of people,” he said.
Not everyone uses roads
Using roads, Nash said, is part of a mixed bag of techniques used by the park’s hunters.
“I think we see a myriad of participants in the Elk Reduction Program, and not everybody uses roads specifically,” he said.
Blacktail Butte and the park’s east boundary, Nash said, are two places hunters regularly go that are off the beaten path.
Early in his career as a guide, Wharff said, he was in charge of a private ranch’s late-season cow-calf hunt — similar to Grand Teton National Park’s elk reduction program. Problems with inexperienced clientele were rampant, things got “ugly” and too often elk were showing up later in winter with “legs shot off.”
Wharff said he fixed the problem by screening his clients.
“I implemented a qualification process,” he said. “I required all my hunters to go down to the rifle range, and they had to demonstrate some level of proficiency.
“I ended up getting [those problems] to where they went away,” Wharff said.
Mangelsen called a screening process a good idea but said it wouldn’t go far enough.
“The park is not a place to have a hunt, period,” the photographer said. “It’s not 1950 anymore. There are lot more tourists than in the ’50s — it’s almost 70 years later.
“They should do away with the whole thing,” he said.