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Sierra Club calls for elk hunt review
Park officials say annual reduction is still necessary to maintain healthy herd balance.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: June 20, 2012
Sierra Club has asked Grand Teton National Park to do an environmental review of its annual elk hunt, citing “changing conditions” since the park last completed a study in 2007.
The request, submitted May 7 in a letter to the park, adds heft to mounting public pressure from critics of the annual culling. The critics, most notably photographers Tom Mangelsen and Tim Mayo, have hammered the park for years, saying the hunt habituates threatened grizzly bears to eating gut piles and puts visitors at risk.
“It would be fair to say that the group of photographers got us tuned into this,” Steve Thomas, Sierra Club’s western regional director, said. Thomas said Sierra Club’s office in Washington, D.C., also signed off on the letter that asks for an environmental assessment, a formal review that would be conducted under federal environmental laws.
In a written response to the 1.4 million-member organization, Grand Teton Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott said that “each of your concerns itemized in your letter are being or have been addressed.” She then shut the door, writing on June 7 that “no additional analyses are necessary at this time.”
Park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs amplified on the superintendent’s letter.
“It is kind of confusing that they’re asking for an [environmental assessment],” she said. “These issues were already analyzed.”
Grand Teton’s 61-year-old annual elk hunt, called the “elk reduction program,” enables federal, state and park wildlife managers to authorize the shooting of elk in Grand Teton in pursuit of a park population goal of 1,600. To update a management plan for bison and elk in Jackson Hole, the park, the National Elk Refuge and Wyoming Game and Fish conducted an environmental review of hunting, feeding and population objectives in 2007.
That environmental impact statement — a deeper study than an environmental assessment — affirmed the need for the hunt.
The 1950 congressional legislation that designated Grand Teton as a national park mandates the “controlled reduction” of elk in the park by “hunters licensed by the state of Wyoming.” Because of this language, the decision to discontinue the reduction program is larger than the park, Skaggs said.
“The governor, Wyoming Game and Fish and U.S. Department of the Interior would have to approve eliminating [the hunt],” she said.
In recent years, Grand Teton has cut the number of permits issued. From 1990 to 2005, an average of 2,500 permits were doled out, a portion of which were “either-sex” tags that allowed the shooting of bulls. More than 1,000 elk were taken annually at the reduction program’s peak in the 1990s. Harvests of more than 700 were regular.
In the 2011 hunt, the numbers dwindled to 750 permits authorized and 278 elk taken.
This fall, for the first time ever, the park has entirely eliminated bull tags and is proposing to slash the number of permits by 25 to 725, Skaggs said. The final tally is determined after a late-summer elk census.
“We’ve been working toward a more limited reduction,” Skaggs said.
At this juncture, no known conservation organization, including Sierra Club, is actively calling for the park to suspend the hunt.
“I can understand the reason for culling the herd,” Jackson resident and Sierra Club volunteer John Spahr said. “Our viewpoint at the Sierra Club right now is that things have changed since 2005, and we just want the park to look at it again. Not many national parks have hunting in them.”
A list of “changing conditions” in the letter Spahr helped organize includes increases in wolf and grizzly populations and falling cow-calf ratios in the Jackson Hole Elk Herd. The effects of discarded lead bullets on predators and scavengers is also mentioned as a worry.
In her written response, Scott systematically addressed each issue.
“To date, all available data support that the elk reduction program, as well as harvest in hunt areas adjacent to the park, continues to be necessary for regulating the Jackson herd at its current state objective and feeding rates on the [National Elk Refuge],” Scott wrote.
Because of northwest Wyoming’s feedground approach to elk management, which inflates numbers beyond the landscape’s carrying capacity, conservation organizations with a heavy presence in Jackson Hole remain understanding of the park’s reduction program.
Almost all of the elk that summer in the park winter on the National Elk Refuge.
The reduction program “is connected directly to the artificial feeding and stockpiling of too many elk on the elk refuge,” Lloyd Dorsey, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Wyoming representative, said. “It makes the harvest in Grand Teton National Park a necessity.”
The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance has a similar stance and is commending recent reforms to the park’s reduction program.
“It’s encouraging that Grand Teton National Park’s leadership is taking steps to make next fall’s hunt a true elk reduction program by targeting the reproductive segment of the herd — adult female elk,” said Cory Hatch, the alliance’s wildlands director.
Meanwhile, Mangelsen, who said the Sierra Club letter was “part of our efforts to get the park to stop the hunt,” is sticking to his position.
“I’ve been fighting this for at least 25 years,” Mangelsen said. “It’s pretty well spelled-out that it’s incredibly dangerous to people.
“It’s not 1952,” he said, referring to the year when the program was authorized. Since then, things have changed to the point campers in the park are ticketed for leaving out food.
“They’re so mixed up,” Mangelsen said of park service rules. You can’t leave a Coke can on your picnic table, but you can leave a gut pile that’s covered with human scent and laced with lead.”
An uptick in grizzly-hunter conflicts, including the mauling of Jackson resident Timothy Hix during last year’s hunt, has Spahr worried.
In the aftermath of the attack, which left Hix with two bite wounds, some wondered if the attacking bear was one of the park’s most iconic grizzlies — bears 399 and 610.
Skaggs said a DNA analysis confirmed it was neither.
“The bear mauling last year had nothing to do with park regulations and everything to do with a surprise encounter between a human and a bear on a carcass,” Skaggs said. “This could just have easily been a hiker, fisherman or jogger as a hunter.”
Park records show that two of the six maulings in Grand Teton’s history involved hunters in the elk reduction program.