Wolves were once an option to reduce Rocky Mountain National Park's popular elk herd

Key topics in this story:

  • How wolves and culling have played a part in Rocky Mountain National Park's roller coaster elk population

  • Will wolves have a future in Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Why hundreds of the park's elk can be seen west of Loveland in winter

Long before wolves were set to be reintroduced by a ballot measure in Colorado, the predator was viewed as an option to reduce an overabundance of elk destroying vegetation in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Voters narrowly approved a ballot measure in 2020 to reintroduce wolves by the end of 2023. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is currently formulating a wolf recovery and management plan to comply with the reintroduction measure.

But in 2008, the park considered wolves, long killed off in the state, as part of its 20-year Elk and Vegetation Management Plan.

Why wolves didn't make the cut as an option to reduce the park's elk population

By the time Rocky Mountain National Park's plan was initiated, researchers were concerned about the impact the robust elk population's grazing was having on aspen, willows and meadows to the detriment of vegetation and other wildlife in the park.

The park's preferred alternative for culling, as well as the use of fencing and contraceptives to reduce the herd, were accepted, but the option of reintroducing wolves was dropped.

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A gray wolf is pictured in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 2017.
A gray wolf is pictured in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 2017.

Vaughn Baker, park superintendent at the time, said experts from Yellowstone National Park were brought to the park to determine if reintroducing wolves was a feasible option.

"They took a look at the situation and said there wasn't enough habitat for wolves because the park was small relative to Yellowstone and so vertical,'' he said, noting Rocky Mountain National Park is one-ninth the size of Yellowstone. "They also said there was no way to keep wolves inside the park and that the wolves would follow the elk and create conflicts, which would doom them to being shot.''

In 2008, WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service for eliminating wolves as an option, but a judge ruled the park service's action complied with the National Environmental Policy Act.

How the park's elk population exploded as wolves were eliminated

Elk were once abundant in Colorado, but by the early 1900s, there were few left in the Estes Valley and elsewhere in the state due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss to logging and mining.

In 1913-14, the Estes Valley Improvement Association and U.S. Forest Service transplanted 49 elk from Yellowstone National Park to the area. That coincided with decades of eliminating predators such as wolves, bears and mountain lions.

After Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915, the elk population grew rapidly as hunting became illegal in the park and more predators, including wolves, were eliminated.

By the mid-1940s, wolves had been removed from the Colorado landscape.

Culling controversial but primary tool in past to reduce park elk population

By the mid-1940s, the park had too many elk and removal by culling began, according to Colorado Encylopedia. It reported that between 1944 and 1953, park personnel eliminated 1,045 elk within the park. The practice stopped in 1962, when population objectives were met.

Vaughn acknowledged culling is controversial in national parks, but effective.

A herd of elk grazes inside Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park on Sept. 14.
A herd of elk grazes inside Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park on Sept. 14.

"There was public concern and opposition,'' he said. "But it was done very clinical and in a way that it couldn't be construed as a hunt."

But by 2001, the elk population grew to an estimated 3,500 elk. That prompted the park to take action, which resulted in its Elk and Vegetation Management Plan.

Park spokesperson Kyle Patterson said culling from 2009 to 2011 removed 52 elk, then culling was ended as population objectives were met: 300 to 500 elk in the Estes Valley, with an estimated 200 overwintering in Estes Park.

Contraceptives have also been used to reduce the elk herd and fencing to reduce impact to vegetation.

Do wolves have a future in Rocky Mountain National Park?

A report by Keystone Policy Center in conjunction with Colorado Parks and Wildlife showed that the most-mentioned public suggestion for wolf reintroduction sites is the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Among the reasons: an abundant elk population.

However, a social-ecological modeling map presented to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, indicating optimal release sites, does not include the park.

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The area shown in that map expected to draw strong support from the state wildlife agency as a wolf release area.

It includes an area roughly from north of Vail east to the Continental Divide, then south to southeast of Gunnison, west to Ridgway and north to north of Glenwood Springs with Aspen in the middle. It includes parts of the White River, Gunnison and Grand Mesa national forests, designated wilderness areas and popular ski areas including Vail, Aspen and Crested Butte.

Experts believe reintroduced wolves will wander into the park. Also, the park's northwest boundary is less than 30 miles from the state's lone known wolfpack in North Park.

Why a large elk herd can now be seen west of Loveland in winter

A cow elk jumps through a vinyl fence on Dec. 11, 2020, previously broken by members of a large elk herd that winters in the area on the west side of Loveland.
A cow elk jumps through a vinyl fence on Dec. 11, 2020, previously broken by members of a large elk herd that winters in the area on the west side of Loveland.

Since 2002, park biologists have seen its elk herd migrate east in winter to lower elevations along the Front Range, according to the park. This was pronounced in the winter of 2011-12, when groups of more than 100 elk were seen near Loveland and fewer elk began wintering in the park and Estes Valley.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife said in the last decade as many as 600 elk start migrating from the park, Estes Valley and surrounding areas by mid- to late November. They go to the foothills west of Loveland from Masonville on the north to Carter Lake on the south.

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The elk occasionally cause delays on U.S. Highway 34 west of Loveland, prompting videos and photos to be posted on social media.

"I get a kick out of it because now when you drive west of Loveland in winter, you see elk jams,'' said Baker, who lives in Estes Park.

Baker, who served as Rocky Mountain National Park superintendent for 13 years before retiring in 2015, said elk have become the iconic symbol of the park.

"I can remember back in the early 1980s and when people went through the park elk were no big deal,'' he said. "Now you see people in Horseshoe and Moraine park lining the road and watching the elk in fall with picnic baskets.''

This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Wolves have history in Rocky Mountain National Park