Shot Heard ‘Round the Park

By on February 10, 2009 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

In 1985, I worked four months at Isle Royale National Park, an archipelago in the middle of Lake Superior best known for its moose and wolves. Since the 1950s, it’s been something of a laboratory for the study of predator-prey relationships. Because of its isolation, it only has one-third of the mammals (black bears did not make it over the ice bridges to Isle Royale) found in the boreal forests in adjacent Minnesota and Ontario.

Moose at Isle Royale National Park
A moose at Isle Royale National Park.

Over time, the moose population has fluctuated widely between 500 and 2,000 moose, even though wolves have been continuously present at Isle Royale since population studies began in the 1950s. In short, while wolves do kill moose and have a dynamic effect on their population, it’s not as if the moose population stays at a fixed number. Their numbers fluctuate in a fairly predictable 20-year cycle. And when moose populations are at their peak, they do have an impact on the vegetative community and there is a noticeable browse line, undoubtedly having a cascade effect on birds and other species that feed on plants and trees or use them for cover or nesting or protection from the cold.

It’s been a core principle of the National Park Service to let these mammalian population fluctuations occur without human intervention. As with almost every national park and national monument in the country, hunting is strictly forbidden at Isle Royale.

It’s in that context that I have been distressed by the elk killing now occurring at Rocky Mountain National Park in northeast Colorado. It’s a fabulous park I’ve visited many times, and while it has elk and mountain lions and black bears, the wolves are gone. Few people think they should be reintroduced there, because they’d quickly get in trouble outside of the park. But there has been ongoing debate about the size of the elk population and its impact on park vegetation.

Hunting has been banned in RMNP since 1929. But the Bush Administration and park officials have attempted to skirt the law and class hunters as “volunteers” and authorized them to start killing elk inside the park.

This decision is bad policy on its face, but particularly dangerous because it can have far-reaching policy implications for the entire National Park System.

If administrative agencies open this crack in the door, then what’s to stop similar “control” actions in other parks and monuments? There will always be some pressure group or other interested party who thinks that the system is out of balance and humans can do better in managing populations with their firearms and archery equipment. Nature is not a steady state system, and while there may be impacts from mammals on plants, trees, and other species, it’s likely that these effects will be transitory.

Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park
© Donald Burton
Elk graze in Rocky Mountain National Park in July 2008.

If politicians cave in to the NRA and other groups that have long coveted an opportunity to shoot wildlife in national parks, we may see proposals to allow “volunteer hunters” in Yellowstone or Yosemite or Acadia, or Everglades, or even Isle Royale. Yes, we have disturbed many of these systems, by removing some species or drawing boundaries that do not allow for migrations and normal movements of wide-ranging species. But this sort of lethal intervention is a very dangerous precedent, and it’s one that The HSUS opposes.

In December, we filed an amicus brief with the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado seeking to overturn the decision. And last week, I sent a letter to the newly appointed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking him to suspend and review this controversial decision.

Let’s hope they look at the larger picture, and recognize that adherence to the progressive principles governing management of our national parks is the proper backdrop for any decision made at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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