Wednesday, October 4, 2023
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Wolf Plan for Colorado Park Won’t Get a Chance

DENVER (CN) - The National Park Service did not need to consider reintroducing wolves into Rocky Mountain National Park to cull a rampant elk population, the 10th Circuit ruled.

Elk numbers in the northern Colorado park have tripled since the National Park Service stopped relocating or killing them as a means of population control in 1969. Finding that the burgeoning herds had damaged vegetation and eliminated some species of plants entirely, the National Park Service began developing a new management plan in 2002.

One management alternative that the agency considered involved the reintroduction of a self-sustaining wolf population. This proposal did not make the cut, however, as the Park Service selected four alternative plans for an environmental impact statement (EIS). The agency instead chose an alternative of combining sharpshooters with a group of intensely managed gray wolves.

The Park Service ultimately selected gradual reduction as its preferred alternative in the final statement, and it said qualified volunteers could help kill elk, taking pains to distinguish such action from hunting.

The final EIS defined "culling" as a highly controlled method for managing an elk population and "hunting" as a loosely regulated recreational activity.

WildEarth Guardians filed suit for judicial review of the Park Service's decision. It insisted that the culling activities qualified as hunting, in violation of the Rocky Mountain National Park Act.

This law prohibits "all hunting or the killing, wounding, or capturing at any time of any wild bird or animal, except dangerous animals when it is necessary to prevent them from destroying human lives or inflicting personal injury."00

A federal judge concluded, however, that the agency had taken the requisite hard look at the data, rationally dismissed the wolf alternative, and clearly distinguished between hunting and culling.

The 10th Circuit affirmed last week, noting that the agency's "interpretation rests on the reason the animal is being killed."

"The identity or subjective feelings of the person pulling the trigger do not matter,"

Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote for a three-judge panel.

He noted that the Park Service plans to closely supervise culls.

"Some cullers may enjoy the experience, but this is irrelevant so long as they kill elk for management purposes pursuant to the procedures and supervision of the NPS," Tymkovich wrote. "The primary purpose of hunting is not for controlling a population of detrimental animals but for food and sport. Because the purpose of the NPS's plan is to control the population of the park's elk and their effect on vegetation, it is distinguishable from hunting, regardless of whether members of the public volunteer to participate in culls."

In finding the wolf proposal unfeasible, the Park Service noted a "lack of support from coordinating agencies, concerns by neighboring communities, the high potential for human-wolf conflicts, and the likelihood that management of wolves in the park would be expensive and time-consuming, distracting from the goal of the NPS's plan - managing elk," according to the ruling.

The court agreed that this explanation clears the agency from claims under the National Environmental Policy Act.

"While the record supports some benefits to a natural wolf option, that is not what guides us," Tymkovich wrote. "What guides us is a rule of reason, where the agency explains its decision to take certain proposed options off the table because of a lack of practicality.

"The NPS did that here. The agency found the natural wolf alternative would be impractical despite some marginal upside, and the record supports that decision. For example, wolf reintroduction may have been successful in Yellowstone and Banff, but the record reflects that those parks are not a good comparator for RMNP [Rocky Mountain National Park]. RMNP is many times smaller than Banff and Yellowstone, and also much closer to residential and commercial developments at the park entrances, plus it is near a heavily populated urban area, Colorado's Front Range Urban Corridor. The NPS determined RMNP has relatively little suitable wolf habitat due to its small size and abundance of steep, high-altitude terrain, which wolves dislike. And as a consequence of the lack of habitat and wolves' natural tendency to disperse, NPS experts predicted that any wolves in RMNP would be very likely to leave the park boundaries, prompting conflicts with neighboring communities. Such conflicts would likely include predation on livestock and pets.

"All this would require intensive, costly management of wolves by RMNP personnel, diverting the park's resources and attention from the very problem the NPS is trying to address - elk overpopulation and degraded vegetation. And given RMNP's relatively small size and the near certainty that wolves would leave park boundaries, the NPS would need the cooperation of Colorado wildlife agencies to manage wolves outside the park, where the NPS has no jurisdiction. Yet CDOW was unwilling and unable to do so. To add to the complexity of the proposal was the fact that the gray wolf species is endangered, lending a level of state management not required of other species."

Senior Judge Stephanie Seymour and Judge Paul Kelly Jr. joined Tymkovich's opinion.

Safari Club International and Safari Club International Foundation had intervened in the appeal, represented by Anna Seidman.

Jennifer Barnes, a law student at the University of Denver, had represented WildEarth Guardians with help on the briefs from associate professor Michael Harris.

Justice Department attorney John Arbab represented the National Park Service.

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