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Nat'l Rec. Areas

New Nat'l Parks


Wildlife Management in the National Parks

Control of animal populations

Good park management requires that ungulate populations be reduced to the level that the range will carry in good health and without impairment to the soil, the vegetation, or to habitats of other animals. This problem is world-wide in scope, and includes non-park as well as park lands. Balance may be achieved in several ways.

(a) Natural predation. - Insofar as possible, control through natural predation should be encouraged. Predators are now protected in the parks of the United States, although unfortunately they were not in the early years and the wolf, grizzly bear, and mountain lion became extinct in many of the national parks. Even today populations of large predators, where they still occur in the parks, are kept below optimal level by programs of predator control applied outside the park boundaries. Although the National Park Service has attempted to negotiate with control agencies of federal and local governments for the maintenance of buffer zones around the parks where predators are not subject to systematic control, these negotiations have been only partially successful. The effort to protect large predators in and around the parks should be greatly intensified. At the same time, it must be recognized that predation alone can seldom be relied upon to control ungulate numbers, particularly the larger species such as bison, moose, elk, and deer; additional artificial controls frequently are called for.

(b) Trapping and transplanting. - Traditionally in the past the National Park Service has attempted to dispose of excess ungulates by trapping and transplanting. Since 1892, for example, Yellowstone National Park alone has supplied 10,478 elk for restocking purposes. Many of the elk ranges in the western United States have been restocked from this source. Thousands of deer and lesser numbers of antelope, bighorns, mountain goats, and bison also have been moved from the parks. This program is fully justified so long as breeding stocks are needed. However, most big game ranges of the United States are essentially filled to carrying capacity, and the cost of a continuing program of trapping and transplanting cannot be sustained solely on the basis of controlling populations within the parks. Trapping and handling of a big game animal usually costs from $50 to $150 and in some situations much more. Since annual surpluses will be produced indefinitely into the future, it is patently impossible to look upon trapping as a practical plan of disposal.

(c) Shooting excess animals that migrate outside the parks. - Many park herds are migratory and can be controlled by public hunting outside the park boundaries. Especially is this true in mountain parks which usually consist largely of summer game range with relatively little winter range. Effective application of this form of control frequently calls for special regulations, since migration usually occurs after normal hunting dates. Most of the western states have cooperated with the National Park Service in scheduling late hunts for the specific purpose of reducing park game herds, and in fact most excess game produced in the parks is so utilized. This is by far the best and the most widely applied method of controlling park populations of ungulates. The only danger is that migratory habits may be eliminated from a herd by differential removal, which would favor survival of non-migratory individuals. With care to preserve, not eliminate, migratory traditions, this plan of control will continue to be the mayor form of herd regulation in national parks.

(d) Control by shooting within the parks. - Where other methods of control are inapplicable or impractical, excess park ungulates must be removed by killing. As stated above in the discussion of park policy, it is the unanimous recommendation of this Board that such shooting be conducted by competent personnel, under the sole jurisdiction of the National Park Service, and for the sole purpose of animal removal, not recreational hunting. If the magnitude of a given removal program requires the services of additional shooters beyond regular Park Service personnel, the selection, employment, training, deputization, and supervision of such additional personnel should be entirely the responsibility of the National Park Service. Only in this manner can the primary goal of wildlife management in the parks be realized. A limited number of expert riflemen, properly equipped and working under centralized direction, can selectively cull a herd with a minimum of disturbance to the surviving animals or to the environment. General public hunting by comparison is often non-selective and grossly disturbing.

Moreover, the numbers of game animals that must be removed annually from the parks by shooting is so small in relation to normally hunted populations outside the parks as to constitute a minor contribution to the public bag, even if it were so utilized. All of these points can be illustrated in the example of the north Yellowstone elk population which has been a focal point of argument about possible public hunting in national parks.

(e) The case of Yellowstone. - Elk summer in all parts of Yellowstone Park and migrate out in nearly all directions, where they are subject to hunting on adjoining public and private lands. One herd, the so-called Northern Elk Herd, moves only to the vicinity of the park border where it may winter largely inside or outside the park, depending on the severity of the winter. This herd was estimated to number 35,000 animals in 1914 which was far in excess of the carrying capacity of the range. Following a massive die-off in 1919-20 the herd has steadily decreased. Over a period of 27 years, the National Park Service removed 8,825 animals by shooting and 5,765 by live- trapping; concurrently, hunters took 40,745 elk from this herd outside the park. Yet the range continued to deteriorate. In the winter of 1961-62 there were approximately 10,000 elk in the herd and carrying capacity of the winter range was estimated at 5,000. So the National Park Service at last undertook a definitive reduction program, killing 4,283 elk by shooting, which along with 850 animals removed in other ways (hunting outside the park, trapping, winter kill) brought the herd down to 5,725 as censused from helicopter. The carcasses of the elk were carefully processed and distributed to Indian communities throughout Montana and Wyoming; so they were well used. The point at issue is whether this same reduction could or should have been accomplished by public hunting.

In autumn during normal hunting season the elk are widely scattered through rough inaccessible mountains in the park. Comparable areas, well stocked with elk, are heavily hunted in adjoining national forests. Applying the kill statistics from the forests to the park, a kill of 200-400 elk might be achieved if most of the available pack stock in the area were used to transport hunters within the park. Autumn hunting could not have accomplished the necessary reduction.

In mid-winter when deep snow and bitter cold forced the elk into lower country along the north border of the park, the National Park Service undertook its reduction program. With snow vehicles, trucks, and helicopters they accomplished the unpleasant job in temperatures that went as low as -40° F. Public hunting was out of the question. Thus, in the case most bitterly argued in the press and in legislative halls, reduction of the herd by recreational hunting would have been a practical impossibility, even if it had been in full conformance with park management objectives.

From now on, the annual removal from this herd may be in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,800 head. By January 31, 1963, removals had totalled 1,300 (300 shot outside the park by hunters, 600 trapped and shipped, and 406 killed by park rangers). Continued special hunts in Montana and other forms of removal will yield the desired reduction by spring. The required yearly maintenance kill is not a large operation when one considers that approximately 100,000 head of big game are taken annually by hunters in Wyoming and Montana.

(f) Game control in other parks. - In 1961-62, excluding Yellowstone elk, there were approximately 870 native animals transplanted and 827 killed on 18 national parks and monuments. Additionally, about 2,500 feral goats, pigs and burros were removed from three areas. Animal control in the park system as a whole is still a small operation. It should be emphasized, however, that removal programs have not in the past been adequate to control ungulates in many of the parks. Future removals will have to be larger and in many cases repeated annually. Better management of wildlife habitat will naturally produce larger annual surpluses. But the scope of this phase of park operation will never be such as to constitute a large facet of management. On the whole, reductions will be small in relation to game harvests outside the parks. For example, from 50 to 200 deer a year are removed from a problem area in Sequoia National Park; the deer kill in California is 75,000 and should be much larger. In Rocky Mountain National Park 59 elk were removed in 1961-62 and the trim should perhaps be 100 per year in the future; Colorado kills over 10,000 elk per year on open hunting ranges. In part, this relates to the small area of the national park system, which constitutes only 3.9 per cent of the public domain; hunting ranges under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management make up approximately 70 per cent.

In summary, control of animal populations in the national parks would appear to us to be an integral part of park management, best handled by the National Park Service itself. In this manner excess ungulates have been controlled in the national parks of Canada since 1943, and the same principle is being applied in the parks of many African countries. Selection of personnel to do the shooting likewise is a function of the Park Service. In most small operations this would logically mean skilled rangers. In larger removal programs, there might be included additional personnel, selected from the general public, hired and deputized by the Service or otherwise engaged, but with a view to accomplishing a task, under strict supervision and solely for the protection of park values. Examples of some potentially large removal programs where expanded crews may be needed are mule deer populations on plateaus fringing Dinosaur National Monument and Zion National Park (west side), and white-tailed deer in Acadia National Park.


Last Modified: Wed, Dec 29 1999 07:08:48 am PDT

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