BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – With ballooning elk and deer populations eating up greenery and altering ecosystems at national parks across the country, a group of researchers is suggesting an unusual solution: introduce small packs of gray wolves to curb the expanding herds.
They acknowledge that it's a tricky endeavor: the hungry predators breed prolifically, roam hundreds of square miles and have a taste for cows and sheep.
But the researchers have got a solution for that, too: Neuter the wolves, fence them in, fit them with shock collars and – just in case – add a tracking device so they can be hunted and killed if they get too far afield.
"If there's lots of food, they're happy," said Dan Licht, National Park Service biologist for the Northern Plains region. "An intensively managed dozen, 10 (wolves) – we think that is doable with today's technology,"
Licht led a team of five researchers who authored a paper in the February issue of the journal BioScience proposing to put wolves back atop the food chain at sites across the country. The predators would become park "stewards," responsible for keeping game numbers down in areas as small as 15 square miles.
A single pack can go through an elk every three to four days. But when they wander, it's often not long before wolves start getting into livestock.
From New York's Adirondack Mountains to California's Sierra Nevada, the extermination of wolves last century allowed big game herds to balloon – tipping nature's scales and caused overgrazing in many parks and protected areas.
For years after wolves were gone, excess elk from parks including North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park were captured and shipped out, to establish new herds in Kentucky, South Dakota and Pennsylvania.
Those shipments have since been restricted because of worries about spreading animal sicknesses like chronic wasting disease. In their absence, Theodore Roosevelt park officials will use volunteer shooters to help trim its 900 elk herd by more than half over the next several years.
In Rocky Mountain National Park – where elk have wiped out aspen and willow groves, prime habitat for beavers and birds – officials last year enlisted paid and volunteer shooters to kill 33 elk. The Park Service rejected proposals to use wolves for the job.
Gray wolves were wiped out by the 1930s except in Alaska, Canada and the Western Great Lakes. They went on the endangered species list in 1975 and were reintroduced to parts of Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the mid-1990s.
They multiplied exponentially, and now number an estimated 1,650 animals in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. In Yellowstone, scientists have tracked an ecosystem rebound since the predator-prey balance was restored.
But the $30 million Northern Rockies wolf restoration program also has stirred rancor. Many ranchers, embittered by frequent wolf attacks on their livestock, say the government let wolf numbers get out of control.
Hunters, too, have complained about declining numbers of big game. Federal biologists say that is just part of a return to more natural conditions.
But gaining public acceptance for similar, if smaller-scale, programs at multiple sites across the country would bring enormous political complications.
"Wolves fix very few problems compared to the ones they create," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ed Bangs, who leads the Northern Rockies wolf restoration program.
That program has withstood criticism in part by taking a hard line against wolves attacking livestock. Since 1995, more than 1,200 wolves have been shot in the region by government wildlife agents or ranchers in defending their property.
Their high numbers have allowed wolves to thrive despite the government killings. With a single wolf pack, there would be far less flexibility.
"When you have great densities of people, lots of agriculture, you're not going to keep wolves alive," Bangs said. "If you're talking even 100 square miles, or 200 square miles, you're talking about a territory that's too small for even one wolf pack."
In Utah, where Idaho wolves haves shown up on occasion in recent years, one state lawmaker has said he wants them removed by the federal government.
In Oregon, another state now home to dispersing Idaho wolves, state officials have shown more tolerance and are ready to let up to eight packs get established.
However, other than the Rocky Mountain National Park proposal, Licht said he knew of none under consideration to cart in wolves and task them with ecological restoration. Give the idea a few years to germinate, he said.
"It is indeed consistent with Park Service policy, which to restore native species and natural processes," he said. "Right now we're starting the dialogue."