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Lots of howls likely as park eyes wolves to cull elk
By Theo Stein  Denver Post Staff Writer  8/1/05
The problem: elk chewing the bejeebers out of Rocky Mountain National Park.

One solution: adding a pack of wolves to the park.

Another problem: wolves wandering into Boulder and Loveland.

Still, the National Park Service is slated this week to propose, as one alternative, adding a wolf pack outfitted with radio collars to chase the elk herds ravaging the park's aspen and willow stands.

Wolf biologists already have warned that keeping the animals in the 226,000-acre park may be next to impossible.

"I can't conceive of a way to keep wolves in the park," said University of Minnesota biologist and wolf expert David Mech. "I just don't know how one would do that."

Park Service officials concede the idea is controversial.

"One biologist told us, 'If you do this, prepare to have your world turned upside down,"' said Therese Johnson, a park management biologist.

Wolves were successfully reintroduced at Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park, but Yellowstone is almost 10 times larger than Rocky Mountain.

"You can't keep them from going," said Michael Phillips, who headed the Yellowstone red wolf program as a biologist for the Turner Endangered Species Fund. "The question is, 'Will they stay in the park long enough to have an impact on the elk herd?"'

Wolves have been known to wander 500 miles in search of a home. Estes Park sits just outside the park, while Boulder, Loveland and some Denver suburbs are about 50 miles away.

Park officials stress they are not trying to reintroduce wolves to Colorado and are only using the predators as a wildlife management tool.

Under the Park Service's wolf alternative, only a handful of wolves would be released in the rugged terrain.

These animals would be under constant surveillance and would be trapped and returned to the park if they left.

While park biologists hope the wolves would settle down to dine on park elk, sharpshooters also would be employed to bring the herd down from 3,000 animals to between 1,200 and 2,100.

"The park really doesn't have much wolf habitat, especially in winter," said Gary Skiba, a state Division of Wildlife biologist. "Our question is, 'What happens when they leave?"'

Other alternatives the Park Service is considering include using elk fertility control agents or a more extensive cull of the animals.

Details of the proposals are scheduled to be released this week in a park newsletter.

The Park Service, however, can't seem to please anyone. Boulder-based Sinapu, an advocate of returning wolves to Colorado, is also criticizing the plan.

"Wolves are not a tool," Sinapu spokesman Rob Edward said. "We should not be treating them as some sort of pest-control device."

Staff writer Theo Stein can be reached at 303-820-1657 or tstein@denverpost.com.

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