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Managing Elk in the Absence of an Intact Ecosystem: Challenges in Rocky Mountain National
Therese Johnson, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO
Following a seven year research phase and four year interagency planning process, Rocky Mountain National Park recently began implementing an Elk and Vegetation Management Plan. Though specific management approaches generate significant controversy and public debate, there is broad consensus among varied stakeholders that some action to reduce elk numbers and redistribute the population is needed. Lack of a full complement of native predators and development outside the park are key stressors that contribute to the overabundant and habituated elk population, resulting in significant declines in aspen and willow habitat that support high biodiversity. There are constraints to restoring predators in the region and hunting is not appropriate in the park, so other management strategies are needed to work toward ecosystem restoration. Plan implementation focuses on adaptively using a combination of conservation tools, including redistributing and culling elk, fencing, and various techniques for restoring aspen and willow. The elk population and vegetation conditions are monitored and results are used to guide adaptive management as needed to meet measurable objectives. Long term success will require management flexibility and persistence, as well as continued public support.