The NPS announced Aug. 10 that it had identified a "preferred alternative" for managing the park's elk population, currently estimated at about 900 animals. The preferred alternative combines elements of several other options initially outlined in the park's Environment Impact Statement, which was open for public comment last winter.
Hoeven and Steinwand have been pushing administration officials for the use of qualified volunteers to cull the herd, rather than paid sharpshooters, euthanasia, fertility controls or other methods proposed by the National Park Service. They have pressed Interior Department officials for a plan favored by the Game and Fish Department, which would entail a controlled hunt by qualified volunteers and which would also allow the hunters to keep a portion of the meat. The preferred alternative released by the Park Service last week gives the meat to the state, American Indian tribes or charitable organizations, without clear provision on whether or not the state can allow the hunters to keep it.
"We have worked to help the Park Service find an affordable and sensible solution to the overpopulation of elk in the park, as have Senator Dorgan and others, but we're not yet convinced that the Park Service is ready to follow through with an acceptable plan," Hoeven said. "We're working to clarify their intention."
The Game and Fish Department did not support any of the original EIS alternatives because none of them provided an opportunity for North Dakota hunters to serve as skilled volunteers, harvest an elk, and keep at least a portion of the meat. One of the Park Service's original alternatives did allow participation by skilled volunteers, but did not allow for the volunteer to keep any of the meat.
Under the new preferred alternative, the National Park Service would donate the meat to state agencies, American Indian tribes or approved charities, "in accordance with federal regulations." "If the state were given the meat, it appears the recipient agency would be able to allow hunters to keep a share of it, but we want to clarify that," Steinwand said.
Hoeven and Steinwand said that while the state encourages donations of game to charities or food banks, volunteers should be allowed to keep a portion of it for themselves and their families. While that prospect would be a positive change from the initial EIS alternatives, Steinwand said Game and Fish still has additional questions about how the Park Service would use volunteers, and representatives of the two agencies plan to meet Aug. 31 to discuss the details.
"For instance, the new alternative says "skilled volunteers would include individuals identified through an NPS-developed system.'" Steinwand said. "We want to know what that system would look like. Would it be so restrictive that few people could qualify, or would even want to participate?"
The preferred alternative also says that volunteers would work as part of a team led by NPS personnel. Game and Fish would like to clarify how many people would make up a team. "We want to make sure that volunteers know what to expect," Steinwand said. "We don't want people committing to this process thinking it will be pretty much like a regular hunt, and then find out it's not."
The new preferred alternative has a 30-day public comment period that closes Sept. 9. Information on where to send comments on the plan is available on the NPS website at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/THRO .