Loved to Death

Besieged by crowds and Front Range pollution, Colorado's premier national park is a vanishing wilderness.

"We're not funding most of this research," Terrell notes. "We're putting $188,000 a year into it, and we think we have about a $4 million program. This is the best bargain the federal government is getting anywhere."

The park is fortunate to be so close to several major universities, whose researchers have helped the park service get a better picture not only of the resources at Rocky Mountain, but also at the Great Sand Dunes and Florissant Fossil Beds, which are served by the center as well. "The parks didn't know what resources they have," Terrell adds. "It's hard to manage them wisely if you don't even have a complete list of the plants and animals you have."

Current studies at Rocky Mountain focus on an astonishing variety of topics, from the "charismatic megafauna," such as elk and mountain lions, to butterflies and lowly lichen. Researchers want to know why the park's black bears seem to be two-thirds the size of bears elsewhere and have fewer cubs. They want to know how the bighorn sheep are faring now that they have to cross a busy road, escorted by volunteers, to reach a mineral lick. They want to crack the mysteries of chronic wasting disease, which was first detected in the park's elk in 1981 and has since been confirmed in a total of twenty elk and twelve mule deer, all in areas east of the Continental Divide. They want to better identify the habitat of the boreal toad, so that people aren't fouling their breeding grounds by washing dishes in a campground stream.

Patrick Merewether
Lone ranger: Gregg Burgess patrols Rocky Mountain's 
front country.
Anthony Camera
Lone ranger: Gregg Burgess patrols Rocky Mountain's front country.

It's Terrell's job to review the proposals and make sure they take a scientifically valid approach. She turns down researchers who want to bring non-native plants or radioactive isotopes into the park and those whose interests don't seem to have any connection with park-management issues.

"Somebody came to us and wanted to prove that chronic wasting disease and blowdowns were caused by aliens," she recalls. "It was not... science. It was just to prove a preconceived notion. I couldn't come up with a way to do it scientifically."

Terrell would like to see more projects addressing Rocky Mountain's most elusive creatures, such as wolverines, which may not exist at all in the park anymore. And she would welcome more big-picture studies. "The direction I would like to see us go is more integrative -- larger ecosystem research instead of individual species," she says. "At what point do we need to encourage people to go to a different part of the park? We see some impacts. How serious they are, we don't know. On a large scale, climbers aren't having a lot of impact. But are they having an impact on bat nursery areas or rare plant communities? We have no idea."

Research findings often lead to changes in the way the park is managed. This winter, after years of study and public meetings, Rocky Mountain will unveil its long-awaited management plan for dealing with the staggering elk population. Given the attachment visitors feel to the elk and their importance to the tourist industry in Estes Park, this is easily the most difficult decision administrators have faced in years.

After being virtually eradicated by settlers in the late 1800s, elk were reintroduced to the area by the U.S. Forest Service two years before the park was born. Since the wolves and grizzlies had been killed off, too, the elk thrived. For decades, rangers kept the herd down to a manageable size through regular hunts, but the culling stopped in the 1960s, after public outrage over massive elk kills in Yellowstone. The herd has tripled since 1969, with as many as 3,000 elk moving into the park in the summer and 2,000 wintering there. Aside from causing property damage around Estes Park, the elk are devouring willows and aspens, slashing through precious vegetation and endangering habitat for beavers, songbirds and butterflies.

"It's not just a park problem," superintendent Baker says. "It's a town problem, a county problem, a golf course problem. There's no agreement on how to deal with it."

Because of the chronic wasting disease, park officials can't simply relocate a substantial percentage of the herd. Hunting is illegal in national parks -- and even if that law were suspended, opening the park to hunters would restrict access to too many popular areas. Other possible options include contraceptives, reintroducing wolves to the park and bringing in marksmen for tightly supervised culling.

"We realize not everyone is going to like whatever's selected," says Therese Johnson, the management biologist overseeing the plan. "There are people on both sides of every alternative. But we want to make sure we're not overlooking something, some information or technique we don't know about."

Baker suspects the plan will feature a combination of different methods. "I don't think any one technique is the silver bullet," he says. "We're certainly not an intact ecosystem, and they couldn't contain wolves even in a park the size of Yellowstone. We have a town right here. Would you like to see wolves running down Main Street? I suspect we'll have some fencing, some culling, possibly some predator control. The wolves may show up on their own. The prey base is certainly here."

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