Officials Consider Ways to Cull Wildlife - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News


Officials Consider Ways to Cull Wildlife

Rangers at America's national parks may be doing too good a job protecting the wildlife: Overpopulation of some animals has led to the spread of disease and is prompting park management to consider extreme solutions - perhaps even hiring professional hunters or sharpshooters.

In Rocky Mountain National Park, a rampaging disease threatens to destroy the brains of the deer population and the 2,200 elk that overpopulate the mile-high refuge above Fort Collins, Colo.

Wildlife veterinarians tranquilize weak-looking deer with darts and test for signs of chronic wasting disease. Animals with positive results are destroyed. It is crucial work because deer and elk are so abundant in the park that the outbreak of the disease with symptoms similar to mad cow is in danger of killing them all.

"Congregations of animals lead to transmission of disease," says Dr. Margaret Wild, a veterinarian with the National Park Service. "And chronic wasting disease is a good example of a disease that does well when there is a high densities of deer or elk."

The elk are in real trouble because no test has been developed to successfully test them while alive. So the National Park Service is considering allowing hunters inside park boundaries to cull - that's kill - between 300 and 500 elk.

"There is a lot of controversy," says Mary Kay Watry of the Rocky Mountain National Park, "with people being opposed to some of the tools that we are potentially going to be using in the future."

Conservationists are concerned the Park Service is taking the easy way out - shooting first asking the right questions later.

"We are concerned that wildlife will be perceived as the enemy," says Steve Torbit, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, "and it will only fan the flames of wildlife eradication under the guise of disease control. We think wildlife diseases have become the new excuse to eliminate wildlife."

That is why even many inside the Park Service prefer to reintroduce wolves to the eco-system and let them do the dirty work.

"Very interestingly, there is no area where we have chronic wasting disease where we have wolves," Wild says. "It might be a coincidence, or it might be that wolves are taking care of those animals before we have a chance to find them."

Wildlife in protected areas of the West is doing so well that the simple act of feeding the animals has become controversial.

At the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyo., people have been feeding elk since 1908. Protecting - and in the case of the elk, feeding them in winter - has led to out-of-control populations that spread disease. Elk in the refuge are rampant with brucellosis: Fourteen percent of the herd is infected.

The elk experts at the refuge know the feeding is not a good idea. But the refuge is such a tourist attraction - and so popular with hunters, because when the elk leave they are easy, plentiful prey - it is politically impossible to stop it.

One wildlife refuge worker notes that the wildlife agencies "are kind of caught in the middle trying to keep everyone happy." But that is leading critics to worry that national parks may be loving their wildlife to death.

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