State: 3 Creek herd should be thinned

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State: 3 Creek herd should be thinned

Golf course biologist says hunters invited on property to cull overpopulation of elk.

By Rebecca Huntington

A hunt aimed at thinning an elk population that often summers around actor Harrison Ford's ranch, where the ungulates are off-limits to hunters, is stirring consternation among some South Park residents.

Angst over the elk hunt surfaced in the form of a letter to the dditor penned by Kay Whiteside, who claimed hunters had killed "hundreds of elk" at 3 Creek Ranch to protect golf greens and flowerbeds.

Although Whiteside's letter missed the mark by a long shot ­ hunters have killed only 14 elk on the ranch ­ it prompted a flurry of phone calls and letters to the ranch and Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Some residents called on 3 Creek, a new golf course and housing development, to "fence themselves in" to protect their property rather than allow an elk hunt.

That misses the point, however, according to 3 Creek Ranch Biologist Roger Smith, who said the hunt has nothing to do with golf greens or flowerbeds.

In fact, Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials asked 3 Creek owners to allow hunting on their land as part of a larger plan to thin the herd.

"The problem is that a lot of landowners don't allow permission to hunt," Game and Fish spokesman Mark Gocke said. "That's why this particular herd segment has grown so much."

Gocke called the 3 Creek hunt "really valuable to us in managing that elk herd." Elk living along the Snake River bottoms belong to the larger Fall Creek Herd, which numbers about 5,100 and exceeds the state's population objective of 4,400 animals.

Elk have doubled since 80s

Landowners in the area agree the number of elk occupying the Snake River bottoms has more than doubled since the 1980s and now exceeds 300 animals.

But many landowners don't want the elk hunted, and there are no swathes of public land in South Park large enough to allow for hunting. One of the biggest landowners in the area, Ford, has created a private elk refuge of sorts with elk summering on his property.

"[Ford] doesn't want any hunting to take place on his property," said John Kelly, who manages the ranch for the actor. "He told me that if I caught anyone to turn them in."

Kelly put up signs warning would-be hunters along the border between 3 Creek and the Ford property, he said.

Another 3 Creek neighbor, Kirby Williams, sees both sides.

"I support thinning the herd out. It's definitely gotten out of control," Williams said Monday. "The foraging they do is quite destructive to replacing the cottonwoods and the aspens. We have noticed that here."

Protecting cottonwood habitat along the river is one reason for the hunt, Gocke said.

But while Williams supports 3 Creek's decision to allow hunting, he does not want hunters on his property, he said.

"We love the elk," Williams said. "We don't want anybody shooting on our ranch. But if other people are willing to put up with that then that's fine with us."

Smith said 3 Creek wanted to cooperate with Game and Fish to help the agency meet its population goal for the herd.

"Game and Fish approached us, asked if we'd be willing to participate," Smith said.

Three Creek hired a hunter to supervise hunters who come onto the property to ensure the hunt is carried out safely and "appropriately," Smith said.

"Because of the property itself," Smith said, "we're not just saying, 'Drive your truck to the back 40 and have at it.'"

Smith said 3 Creek would never allow "hundreds" of elk to be killed and wished neighbors had called to ask about the hunt before making those assumptions. Wildlife is an important component of the ranch where the owners are restoring habitat for various species, including trumpeter swans and trout, in addition to developing high-end homes and a golf course, he said.

South Park open till Jan. 31

Game and Fish biologist Gary Fralick defended the hunt, saying: "We want to try to minimize the chance of elk numbers growing on private lands. It's just not a good scenario. We just don't want elk living in and amongst houses."

Part of the reason for that is those animals are not available to hunters, Fralick said. In addition, Game and Fish officials said they're concerned about elk mingling with cattle in South Park because of the potential for transmitting diseases and because elk may damage stored hay. Game and Fish has been allowing special, late-season hunts to address potential conflicts in South Park for the past 15 years, Fralick said.

This year, Game and Fish sold an additional 125 cow and calf licenses for the South Park area where hunters will be allowed to take elk until Jan. 31, well after the rest of the hunt area closes Nov. 12. The late-season hunt area runs south of Highway 22 to the South Park Bridge and encompasses land in between the Snake River and Highway 191.

Kelly is not convinced about the need for the hunt. Speaking for himself, not Ford, Kelly questioned Game and Fish's policy of feeding elk in the winter, which keeps numbers high and then demanding a liberal hunting season to cull the herd.

"It's like the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," he said.

Kelly and Williams also raised concerns about hunters pursuing elk near South Park subdivisions. A similar controversy erupted in Teton Pines after a hunter shot a bull moose Sept. 29 near that subdivision.

Kelly said Game and Fish, before selling licenses for the late-season hunt, should have asked neighbors: "How do you feel about bullets flying through your neighborhood for the next four months?"


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