Balancing game | SteamboatToday.com

Balancing game

Dave Shively

Steamboat Springs — Colorado is an odd breeding ground for two thriving species without a natural predator on the prowl: man and elk. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation puts our state's predicament clearly in its recent article, “The Future of America's Greatest Herd,” which explains how Colorado, our self-proclaimed “elk capital of the world,” has nearly twice the elk of any other state and twice as many people as any other elk state. — Colorado is an odd breeding ground for two thriving species without a natural predator on the prowl: man and elk. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation puts our state's predicament clearly in its recent article, “The Future of America's Greatest Herd,” which explains how Colorado, our self-proclaimed “elk capital of the world,” has nearly twice the elk of any other state and twice as many people as any other elk state.

— Colorado is an odd breeding ground for two thriving species without a natural predator on the prowl: man and elk. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation puts our state’s predicament clearly in its recent article, “The Future of America’s Greatest Herd,” which explains how Colorado, our self-proclaimed “elk capital of the world,” has nearly twice the elk of any other state and twice as many people as any other elk state.

In our own unique setting, here in Steamboat Springs – a rapidly developing destination town squeezed between the planet’s two largest migratory elk herds – it’s worth looking at how some address our cohabitation with an animal that is equally a threatened asset and ecological threat.

This week, Rocky Mountain National Park officials released a controversial population management plan to curb the booming elk population in the park (where hunting is prohibited). Their solution is deploying National Park Service sharpshooters, silencing rifles to not disturb the herd and stealthily culling up to 200 elk a year to reduce an estimated 3,100 animals by almost half.

Sneaky? Totally. Effective? Well, Robert Skorkowsky, a U.S. Forest Service regional wildlife biologist, pointed out that these lethal reductions don’t do anything to keep elk out of the sensitive riparian areas they impact most.

He cited the effective reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park a decade ago: “The elk don’t hang out in the creek bottoms anymore, and that means a dramatic change with the riparian areas back, then the beavers come back; it’s a cascading effect.”

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Since we deal with a larger number of elk than the RMNP (an estimated 72,000 between the Bears Ears and the White River herds) I started thinking about local wolves, especially after one of our staff photographers spotted one in North Park this summer. District wildlife manager Jim Haskins assured me that while he’s fielded one submitted wolf sighting from Jackson County, none have come in from Routt.

So if it’s long years before a Wyoming pack survives here (or even becomes a management option on the table), hunting still remains the most obvious and pragmatic tool to manage herd size.

But thousands of cow elk licenses go unsold because there’s just not enough demand.

Couple that with the stream of bleak harvest reports from this year’s third and fourth rifle seasons, and you wonder about future booming herds as some elk begin the migration west and others find comfortable south-facing sagebrush for the winter.

The DOW won’t have an estimate until the spring, and it’s hard to see oneself getting worked up now over the impacts of summer elk grazing on local aspen groves – especially considering the damage we do to their winter range.

From ongoing local development to the broader drilling projects on private, public and state lands across the White River-Flat Tops region, which are choking down migration corridors and winter range, if calves cannot keep surviving our threats, we won’t have economically vital populations to worry about curbing.