Elk and their management have received local, state and national media attention. Management opinions have been expressed by State and local Government, Park neighbors, hunting, and conservation groups. This process has received national attention.
Elk were extirpated from South Dakota by 1900 and were reintroduced into the Park from Teton and Yellowstone National Parks between 1914 and 1916. In February 2007, the Park’s winter elk population was estimated at 650+, exceeding the management capacity of around 350. With an estimated annual population increase of 12 percent, the elk population continues to grow and impacts other park resources.
Vegetative surveys in the 1950-1960s found Park rangelands to be overgrazed by elk and bison. The Park established a management population of 350-400 elk. Current vegetative surveys indicate Park rangelands are overgrazed.
The Park has operated under a 1994 Elk Management Strategy dictating live trapping and relocating of elk to maintain a population between 350-400 animals.
In November 2002, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was confirmed in an elk taken from within the Park, precluding the Park from live trapping and transport of excess animals. From 2004 through the present time, the Park has conducted a surveillance program to remove elk and deer exhibiting clinical signs of CWD; nine elk and eight deer have tested positive for this disease.
In 2003, the Park entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the South Dakota, Department of Game, Fish and Parks to develop Park and Black Hills elk management plans, as well as a Statewide CWD management plan.
The park secured funding in 2004 to begin development of an Elk Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement and internal scoping was conducted in June of 2004 with experts on elk, NEPA, park resources, and wildlife disease. A science team was developed with elk management experts from Government and non-Government areas to address goals for elk management. Topics included range management, elk population, reduction/maintenance methods, monitoring, action thresholds, and adaptive management.
Public scoping meetings were conducted in Hot Spring, Custer, Rapid City, Pierre, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota in August 2005.
A draft plan was submitted to the NPS Midwest Region Office in March 2007 for review. The selected alternative may have features from multiple approaches. The following draft alternatives have been developed:
- Alternative A – No Action: No new management actions beyond those utilized as of the commencement of the EIS analysis would be undertaken to manage elk.
- Alternative B – Hunting Outside the Park: Wildlife “gates” would be installed along the boundary fence to allow elk but not bison movement. The gates would be closed during hunting seasons to minimize elk reentry to the park. Hazing may be used to ensure the appropriate number of elk leave the Park.
- Alternative C – Roundup/Live Ship or Euthanasia within Park: Elk would be captured and shipped for slaughter and donation (if a partner(s) to cover the costs associated with transport, slaughter/processing and donation of meat is found), or killed and disposed of. Donations would be in accordance with National Park Service Public Health Program guidelines and no CWD-positive carcasses would be donated.
- Alternative D – Skilled volunteers: Skilled volunteers would reduce and maintain elk numbers in the Park. Carcasses would be removed from the backcountry and land filled or incinerated, or left in place if Managers believe their breakdown is environmentally preferred. The CWD test samples will be taken from adult carcasses.
- Alternative E – Contraception (sterilization): Reproductive cow elk would be surgically sterilized to reduce recruitment and growth of the herd. Because these techniques have not been used on free-ranging elk, this option would be used to maintain target population after initial reduction efforts. Sterilized cows would be marked (ear tag, freeze branding, etc.) to reduce the risk they are hunted outside the Park or recaptured for sterilization inside the park.
- Alternative F – Fertility Control Agents: Cow elk would be treated with chemical fertility control agents to limit calving. It is considered a population maintenance tool after initial reduction efforts. No chemical contraceptive meeting Park needs are currently available; however, future agents may become available and would be considered for use if they are: effective with a single treatment; at least 85 percent effective; have appropriate approvals and certifications; safe for treated animals; result in no recognizable behavioral effects; be safe for non-target animals; and be effective for more than 1 year.
Alternatives Considered but Dismissed (with brief rationale for dismissal):
- Hunting in the Park: inconsistent with existing laws, policies, and regulations.
- Translocation of Elk: NPS policy prohibits shipping live elk from CWD areas.
- Habitat Alteration: habitat alterations would invite more elk into the park.
- Fencing in Elk: inhibits natural migration pattern of elk and other wildlife.
- Aerial Sharpshooting: negative public perception, visitor experience and safety impacts.
- Predator Reintroduction (wolf): no support from SDGFP or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The draft plan is expected to be released for public review in the spring of 2008.
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