Sunday, March 18, 2007

ESTES PARK, Colo. — Even die-hard elk lovers concede that Estes Park might have too much of a good thing.

The elk mosey through the downtown, stop traffic and cross the main drag like half-ton jaywalkers. They camp out by the dozens on front lawns and driveways. They get stuck in swing sets. They give birth on the golf course.

“They will reach for things that look tasty, and so there will be times when they’re walking around with Christmas tree lights on their antlers,” said Suzy Blackhurst, spokeswoman for the Estes Park Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It’s not helpful for the elk and it’s very sad to see,” she said. “It’s time for something to happen and for humans to intervene.”

Most residents agree that the time has come to cull the herd the old-fashioned way, with an exercise of Second Amendment rights. The issue now is figuring out who should do the exercising.

The elk live in Rocky Mountain National Park, adjacent to Estes Park. In a draft proposal released last year, the National Park Service suggested hiring sharpshooters to thin the herd from 3,000 to about 1,700 over a 20-year period.

The plan would cost $18 million, which some locals see as a waste of money because there are qualified sportsmen who would pay top dollar to do the honors. The hunters also would keep the elk meat instead of having it go to waste.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife recently introduced a plan that calls for reducing the elk population with the so-called “public hunters.”

“Our proposal is for a very highly regulated, organized hunt with approved hunters,” said Jennifer Churchill, division spokeswoman. “We could do it safely, efficiently, and help save the park service some money.”

There’s just one glitch: Park Superintendent Vaughn Baker said he doesn’t have the authority to allow sportsmen to participate in elk management. Rep. Mark Udall, the Colorado Democrat who represents Estes Park, has written a bill that would make an exception for hunters in this case.

“This bill does not declare open season in Rocky Mountain National Park. It makes sure the park service has the authority to allow qualified sportsmen and sportswomen to participate under strict guidelines in the elk management plan for the park,” Mr. Udall said after introducing the bill last month.

At a town hall meeting yesterday, Mr. Udall emphasized that there would be no “Elmer Fudd-style” situation, with hunters running amok. But critics of the proposal have raised the specter of a public elk hunt that puts hikers, campers and other park visitors in the line of fire.

“People with rifles, hunting in our national parks, could kill people in the park,” Karen and Roger Galloway wrote in a letter to the Estes Park Trail-Gazette.

They advocated letting the elk die off naturally. Wildlife biologists say the elk eventually will die of starvation or chronic-wasting disease if not culled by hunting.

Locals also worry about the publicity of an elk hunt. The animals are the picturesque mountain community’s biggest tourist attraction, and thousands travel here to watch them bugle each fall during Elk Fest.

But town leaders argue that the tourism industry isn’t likely to benefit from mangy, starving elk staggering through the downtown.

A final decision by the park superintendent is expected by June.

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