Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

Elk Hunting in the Badlands

July 9, 2009, 8:57 am

In 1985, 47 elk were released in the southern section of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. Today, that herd numbers some 900 animals, far more than the park can sustain. The herd needs to be reduced to about 300 in order to bring it into balance with its ecosystem. What to do?

Senator Byron Dorgan’s idea — spelled out in a rider to an Interior Department appropriations bill that the Senate is expected to consider soon — is what he calls a “common sense” public elk hunt. The idea violates both common sense and the very idea of a national park.

To begin with, the proposal would legislate a management issue better left to the secretary of interior and the National Park Service. Worse, it would authorize an activity — public hunting — that is proscribed by the founding legislation for the national parks and their current management policies.

True, public elk hunting is allowed in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, and it is on this model that Mr. Dorgan, a Democrat, based his proposal. But the Grand Teton hunt is a special exception granted by the law establishing the park in 1950 and occurs in a limited area not far from the elk’s winter feeding grounds.

Rocky Mountain National Park provides a better model. There, hired sharpshooters have culled cow elk in parts of the park that are closed to the public. This is a safer, more efficient and less expensive way of reducing numbers than shooting bulls, which is what most hunters do.

How to manage, and ultimately cull, this North Dakota elk herd should be decided by the National Park Service, based on sound science, not by faulty, if well-intentioned, legislation. It is also critical not to create a broad precedent for public hunting in the national parks, which would undermine their protected status.