By Ruffin Prevost
JACKSON, WYO. — Although hunting is banned in most national parks, an annual elk hunt aimed at controlling unnaturally high herd sizes will begin Saturday in limited areas within Grand Teton National Park.
Wildlife managers have used federally mandated hunts to help cull the burgeoning elk herds around Grand Teton since the 1950s, and while there is widespread local public support for elk hunts in the park, the practice has been criticized by some.
Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said in a written statement that the park’s “elk reduction program is an important management tool that differs somewhat from other elk hunting programs in the region.”
The closely monitored and tightly managed hunt has more restrictions than most elk hunting in other areas around Wyoming and the surrounding region. Elk hunters in Grand Teton must carry bear spray and are encouraged to use lead-free ammunition.
Some Jackson Hole wildlife and nature photographers have warned that the hunt habituates grizzly bears to feeding on discarded elk remains, putting humans at risk of surprise encounters with bears.
Park officials have defended the 2007 elk management plan, saying concerns about public safety and lead ammunition are being addressed as the hunts continue. Many environmental and wildlife groups support the hunts as a necessary method for reducing the artificially high elk populations in the area that result from feeding programs.
“The need for the park’s elk reduction program stems partly from an intensive management framework that includes annual winter feeding programs on the National Elk Refuge and in the upper Gros Ventre drainage,” Skaggs said. “Feeding sustains high numbers of elk with unnaturally low mortality rates.”
Some environmental groups and wildlife advocates have called for phasing out artificial feeding of elk around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, saying the practice increases the likelihood of disease outbreaks among elk and creates unbalanced and unnatural population dynamics in the surrounding ecosystems. The complex issue has proven politically and logistically difficult to resolve, and appears beyond the control of any single governing entity or agency.
The annual elk hunts, when needed, were mandated in 1950 by Congress as part of legislation that established Grand Teton boundaries.
Park wildlife officials work closely with counterparts from the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish to monitor herd sizes and determine when hunts are required, and to set quotas for how many elk should be culled.
“Each fall, park rangers intensively monitor and patrol elk reduction areas to ensure compliance with rules and regulations, interpret the elk reduction program to visitors, and provide hunters with information on local conditions associated with this wildlife management policy,” Skaggs said.
Park officials recommend that visitors recreate in areas west of the Snake River that are closed to hunting and advise visitors to wear hunter orange or other bright colors whenever they enter open hunting zones away from park developed areas.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].