While the designation of wilderness within Rocky Mountain National was a big win from the days in Colorado, moving toward a more stable ecosystem with the reintroduction of an apex carnivore was not nearly as successful. Gray wolves still occasionally wonder into Colorado from Wyoming, but have yet to re-establish. Below is a position statement from somewhere around 2003 from the Audubon Society.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a jewel. Living so close to so many majestic mountains is what keeps many of us here in Colorado. These same mountains beckon more people each year to put down roots here. While we would think, and hope, that places like Rocky Mountain National Park would be immune from the ill-effects of rampant growth in Colorado, a closer look suggests that this is not necessarily the case.
After years of lobbying by Enos Mills, President Wilson designated this land as Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in January of 1915. Most of the 265,000 acres that now make up RMNP were in the original designation. While the mountains and wildlife may have been the primary reason for designation as a National Park, the park has always been a vital refuge for birds. This importance has been recognized by its recent designation as a globally Important Bird Area (IBA) by the American Bird Conservancy and as an Aububon IBA.
As we all know, RMNP is more than just pretty mountains. The desire to create a wildlife refuge in RMNP was brought on by over harvesting of big game. Around 1900, elk were eliminated from the RMNP area due to over-hunting and had to be reintroduced from the Yellowstone elk herd. Wolves and grizzlies had also been eliminated, but the thought of reintroducing predators would have been considered preposterous at the time. Without predators, the elk population grew rapidly and as early as 1930 the Park Service noted a deterioration of vegetation due to overgrazing on the elk’s winter range. The ecosystems contained in Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, and Estes Park bore the brunt of the elk’s overgrazing.
The adverse impacts of this overgrazing have been felt through the entire ecosystem, right down to the birds. These wide riparian areas supported active beaver dams which held water in meadows and helped produce intermittent flooding. Since the elk prevented willows and aspen from gaining a mature size, the beavers had no mature growth to harvest. The beaver were the first casualties of the elk overgrazing and are now largely absent from RMNP. Without beavers to regulate the water flow through these riparian areas, the water table dropped, the meadows dried considerably, and the amount and structure of the vegetation dropped substantially. The higher stream flow rates led to bank erosion and, as a result, the streams in RMNP straightened and are now 50% shorter today than they were in 1946.
The loss of these willows and aspen communities has a profound effect on avian biodiversity. Control studies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have show a 50% reduction in avian migrant density due to ungulate overgrazing. RMNP would be much healthier (and would be much better birding habitat!) if the elk populations were controlled. The Park officials have long recognized this and are ready to act. The question now is what means should we use to control the elk populations?
Many options are under consideration at the moment: birth control, fencing out riparian areas, hazing, and wolf reintroduction. All of these methods have their strengths and weaknesses, but studies emerging from Yellowstone are tipping the balance in favor of the wolves. While wolves generally reduce elk numbers, we are beginning to realize that the impact wolves have on elk behavior might be more profound than their impact on elk numbers. This “ecology of fear” keeps elk out of areas they deem dangerous due to poor escape routes, such as riparian zones. Simply knowing wolves are in the area modifies the way elk behave and leads to riparian rejuvenation.
We are committed to protecting the habitat of Important Bird Areas; these areas are the last best refuges for bird species that are having an increasingly hard time adapting to our ever growing urbanization. The natural way to restore the balance and ecosystem function in RMNP is to reintroduce wolves, and the only real impediment to this reintroduction is the urbanization around the Park. The complexity of the natural world continues to teach us new and exciting lessons, and in this case it seems to be teaching us that, in some places, birds need wolves.