By Tyler Pialet
(Estes Park) Trail-Gazette
There have been rumors floating around the Estes Park community about reintroducing wolves to Rocky Mountain National Park.
RMNP Public Information Officer Kyle Patterson says that these rumors are not true.
“We are not discussing reintroducing wolves, so there may be some miscommunication or misinformation,” Patterson said.
Wolves were extirpated from RMNP prior to 1915 when the park was established. Today, they are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
In 2009, the park implemented its “Elk and Vegetation Management Plan” after discussing, in part, the possibility of reintroducing wolves to the park. The 20-year plan looks at the impact the growing population of elk is having on the park’s resources and creates action measures to start restoring natural variability in the size of the elk population and the subsequent plant communities that it affects.
Prior to this plan, the park assessed whether reintroducing predators such as wolves would be a feasible tool for managing the large elk population in the park. For two years, they evaluated the park’s configuration and size, as well as the movement of elk in the park and its adjoining lands.
National Park Service (NPS) representatives met with eight local, state and federal agencies to discuss how wolves might help manage elk and facilitate the restoration of the vegetation in the park.
After a 2005 workshop held by the NPS, experts from multiple agencies and institutions, including various national parks and wildlife services, decided that reintroducing wolves would not be feasible in RMNP at the time.
At the time, the park stated that while officials were developing this resource management plan, they had to consider a range of reasonable alternatives as required by federal planning rules.
“The National Park Service considered our neighbors’ concerns of perceived and real threats; the degree of expected conflict with livestock and domestic pets; the limited suitable habitat available for wolves outside the park; and the intensive management that would likely be required to respond to external issues,” a statement from the park read.
But research does show that reintroducing wolf populations to national parks does help manage elk populations while simultaneously sustaining vegetation.
According to a 2015 study from Oregon State University Professors Robert Beschta and William Ripple that looked at the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, they found that doing so quickly restored balance in the ecosystem.
After wolves began inhabiting the environment, elk numbers declined and less vegetation was consumed. That allowed the willow and cottonwood populations that had been decimated by elk overpopulation the time they needed to recover.
In the park’s “Elk and Vegetation Management Plan,” RMNP tightly monitors its vegetation, using “exclosures” and culling a limited number of elk.
The park hasn’t had to cull any elk since 2011, however, as it has remained at or below its management objective for elk wintering in the park.