Christopher Gill to Editor of Big Bend Sentinel on Elk Removals by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
I felt that several comments made by TPWD Executive Director, Carter Smith, defending elk removals, needed rebuttal.
NOTE: The text of a letter to the editor is below, and a PDF of the actual article is at the bottom of this post.
Thank you for bringing Texas Parks and Wildlife’s West Texas elk removal policy to your readers’ attention.
I would like to answer a few points made by supporters of elk removals.
My friend Carter Smith dismisses this as “one disagreement with one landowner on one mountain range.”
That is misleading in at least two ways:
First, the Wildlife Management Area policy to reduce elk numbers to zero is not restricted to the Sierra Diablos. It is in the management plan of all four department properties in West Texas and proposed at Big Bend National Park. I have been told by the department that elk will be shot wherever and whenever they are encountered, since they are viewed no differently than aoudad or feral pigs. The department means business and has now killed elk at the Sierra Diablo and Elephant Mountain WMA’s – and almost 900 aoudad from helicopters on Big Bend Ranch State Park – under the theory that the elimination of as many exotics as possible, including elk, is necessary to reintroduce bighorn sheep.
Second, I am not the only person who objects. Public silence on elk removal which affects 10 million acres reflects unawareness of the policy, not agreement. In December, 2009, under Dr. Louis Harveson’s direction, Sul Ross State University completed a survey of 1,743 West Texas landowners and managers. By 16 ½ to 1, landowners and managers expressed positive attitudes towards elk. By 3 ½ to 1, they said they want elk on their properties. By almost 2 to 1, they said they want voluntary large-scale elk management programs. Texas Wildlife Association (TWA), a property-, wildlife-, and hunting-rights advocacy group which represents 35 million acres across Texas, expressed its objections to proposed elk trapping-removals at The Big Bend National Park. TWA told park management that elk have great economic potential and asked they be managed like other valuable species. TWA also said that population control should be conducted by public hunting, whenever possible.
Although it is correct that the Sierra Diablo WMA was set up to promote sheep restoration, in those days there was no thought of elk removals: elk were classified as game animals. The department was reintroducing elk! The Elephant Mountain WMA was given to, and accepted by, the department for the purpose of increasing big game animals including elk.
The reclassification of elk to exotic status in 1997 passed “under the radar”: it was declared an “emergency,” bypassing the three required readings, public discussion and debate. This was skillful legislative management by the proponents, but neither careful, nor transparent. Even so, change of elk status to ‘exotic’ did not mandate elk removals: this is a department idea, fashioned outside the view of the vast majority of affected landowners across 10 million acres, concealed from Circle Ranch, and today still largely unknown.
Department staff are mistaken that elk hurt sheep. The Sierra Diablo sheep herd is estimated to number 858 animals out of a total of 1,100 for all of Texas. This population exists alongside a relative abundance of elk compared to the rest of the state. Other bighorn herds, in the absence of elk, have not done as well. At Circle, alongside elk we have growing numbers of sheep, deer, and pronghorn, and periodically we even run 1,000 cattle. Elk, bighorn, pronghorn, mule deer and bison were all found together throughout Western ranges.
It is true that free water sources are scanty at the Sierra Diablo WMA. However, water points can be modified to exclude elk, and Circle Ranch has for years been offering to help extend additional water into the WMA. The department says it neither wants nor needs additional water, yet justifies its plans to kill out an indigenous animal because of “inadequate” water.
Every state bordering Texas fosters its elk. Most landowners, managers, and the public want elk. Even Mexico is restoring elk opposite the Big Bend National Park. One hundred years into our state’s struggle to restore deer, pronghorn, bighorn, turkey and many other native species to their former ranges, we have the amazing fact that our federal and state agencies which were created to protect our native wildlife are eradicating elk on those properties entrusted to them because in 1905, when one biologist, V. Bailey, surveyed the animal community of Texas, he couldn’t find any elk. But in the 105 years since Bailey, landowners, researchers, archaeologists, and others have found the evidence not available to him.
Notwithstanding the scientific soundness and common sense of managing elk rather than eradicating elk, the department is stuck in the tar-baby of past pronouncements and practices. Still, it is sensitive to the wishes of the public. Opposition to elk removals should be made known. This will help the department break with the recent past and act according to its own high standards. It is my hope that comments will be offered in a way that is respectful of the department and its well-intentioned, hard- working personnel.
Those who would like to learn more about sound range and wildlife practices in West Texas should visit the website we have created for this purpose. A complete set of documents and contact data are posted, and reader comments are encouraged: www.circleranchtx.com.
Thank you again for bringing these important matters to the public view. This is the discussion that should have preceded the legislative reclassification and the formulation of department elk removal policy.