Rocky Mountain National Park’s (RMNP) use of volunteer hunters to cull excess elk does not violate federal rules prohibiting hunting in most national parks, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. The court also held that the National Park Service (NPS) sufficiently considered and ruled out the reintroduction of gray wolves to manage elk inside the park.
The court’s Jan. 9 decision stemmed from a 2008 lawsuit filed by the group WildEarth Guardians that alleged park officials acted arbitrarily in ruling out the use of wolves to control elk numbers. The suit also contended that allowing volunteers to participate in culling activities was tantamount to hunting, which is banned by RMNP’s enabling legislation.
In December 2007, RMNP decided that gradual culling was the best method for controlling elk, which, due to overpopulation, were damaging park resources. The management plan adopted by the park specified that “qualified volunteers” could assist NPS staff with these culling operations, making clear that the volunteers would be engaging in herd reduction activities under NPS supervision, not licensed hunting.
A federal district judge upheld the park’s elk management plan in 2011, and a three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
“We find the record supports the agency’s decision to exclude consideration of a natural wolf alternative from its environmental impact statement,” wrote Judge Timothy Tymkovich on behalf of the court. “We also find the agency’s interpretation of the National Parks Organic Act and Rocky Mountain National Park Enabling Act persuasive, and that its elk management plan does not violate those statutes.”
“The issue of using hunters as wildlife management agents in culling operations where hunting is otherwise not allowed has been one that the NRA started pursuing a long time ago,” said Susan Recce, NRA Director of Wildlife, Conservation and Natural Resources. “NRA was fortunate to be joined by Safari Club International, which has been a great partner and has done the legal work in the suit filed against NPS. The plaintiffs not only didn’t like the concept of hunters in Rocky Mountain National Park, but they were miffed that NPS didn’t view the introduction of wolves as a viable management option.”
The court found that wolf reintroduction was considered, but RMNP officials eventually decided that the park’s proximity to populated areas along the Rocky Mountain Front Range, as well as the cost of such an undertaking, made wolves a poor management option.
“The agency explained this alternative was infeasible due to lack of support from coordinating agencies, concerns by neighboring communities, the high potential for human-wolf conflicts, and the likelihood that management of wolves in the park would be expensive and time-consuming, distracting from the goal of the NPS’s plan—managing elk,” Tymkovich wrote.
The method for managing the park’s elk that was ultimately selected—allowing NPS staff and their authorized agents, including members of the public, to cull elk—was also permissible, the court said. Both the RMNP Enabling Act and the National Parks Organic Act allow for the removal of animals that pose a danger to humans or are detrimental to the park. The manner in which those animals are destroyed is up to the Secretary of the Interior.
In the case of Rocky Mountain National Park, the court said culling elk to manage the herd is permitted, regardless if it is an NPS employee or a member of the public pulling the trigger.
“Neither [the RMNP Act’s] hunting ban nor the exceptions to that ban are based on the identity of the party destroying the animal,” the ruling stated. “[The act’s] hunting ban is universal, and the exceptions to the statute’s killing, capturing, or wounding ban focus on the reason the animal is killed, rather than who kills it.
“[WildEarth Guardians does not] satisfactorily explain why, if NPS personnel can shoot an elk without it being considered hunting, the NPS’s agents cannot do so, or can do so only if they are being paid by the NPS. Generally a principal can authorize an agent to perform any lawful act the principal can perform himself.
“Because the purpose of the NPS’s plan is to control the population of the park’s elk and their effect on vegetation, it is distinguishable from hunting, regardless of whether members of the public volunteer to participate in culls.”
Officials estimate that approximately 3,200 elk range through RMNP east toward Loveland, Colo., including a resident herd of about 1,700 in Estes Park. The RMNP Elk and Vegetation Management Plan calls for maintaining an elk population of 600 to 800 animals on the winter range within RMNP. Since the winter of 2008, 131 elk have been removed from the park. A total of 29 volunteers have attended and completed training as qualified volunteers for elk culling since recruitment of volunteers began in October 2008.
“This ruling is important because it makes clear that members of the hunting community can participate in wildlife management activities inside national parks, even if hunting itself is prohibited by law,” said Recce. “Who is more capable of serving as a ‘qualified volunteer’ than an experienced hunter?”
Meat from culled elk that tests negative for Chronic Wasting Disease is distributed to the public via a lottery system run by Colorado Parks & Wildlife. The park says that volunteers are able to participate in the lottery; however, they are not eligible to receive meat associated with their direct culling activity.