DICKINSON, N.D. -- An elk reduction effort in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the largest of its kind in any national park, wrapped up Thursday, and more elk were removed than initially aimed for.

Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs for TRNP, said volunteers began the 12-week project Nov. 1, with the last cow elk shot Jan. 20.

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With an elk population estimated at 1,200 to 1,300, including those in and just outside the park, TRNP aimed to remove 250 elk from the population, according to a press release.

As of last week, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department reported 129 elk were taken in units adjacent to the park during the regular elk hunting season, and 406 were removed from inside the park, Andes said.

"Our target for this year was 250, so we exceeded that by a very large number," Andes said, adding only females were the only ones taken.

The reduction was conducted largely with the help of volunteer,s and the park received applications from 46 states.

About 76 percent were chosen from North Dakota and Minnesota, Andes said.

Volunteers applied through a computerized system chosen by week with a maximum of 20 spots available per week.

About 5,200 people submitted about 29,000 applications, and 181 volunteers participated, Andes said.

Because the effort had volunteers removing elk only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 406 elk were removed in 36 days, Andes said.

Divided into teams, the volunteers went into the field with team leaders composed of park service employees.

"The team leaders came on duty a couple weeks early to work out the protocols and to make sure that what they were doing was going to work because a project of this type has never been done before in a national park," Andes said.

Training and orientation classes were conducted each Monday morning and in the afternoon, volunteers had to take a shooting proficiency test

"Our primary aim was safety," Andes said. "We weren't going to sacrifice safety to make this program work, and we didn't."

Non-lead ammunition was used, and all elk removed from the park were tested for chronic wasting disease. All tests came back negative.

"The elk reduction effort exceeded all of our expectations," said TRNP Superintendent Valerie Naylor, according to the release. "The five National Park Service team leaders did an exceptional job of providing for the safety of our volunteers in the field and exceeding all elk reduction goals under extremely difficult conditions. In addition, we had no injuries or accidents."

Meat collected during the reduction went to good use.

About 21,500 pounds of elk meat went to state American Indian tribes for use in food pantries, diabetes and elderly programs and homeless shelters, according to the release.

With the assistance of the North Dakota Community Action, about 13,300 pounds of elk meat went to Sportsmen Against Hunger, which was then used to stock food pantries across the state.

In order for volunteers to receive any of the remaining elk meat, it had to be donated to the NDGF first, then to the volunteers, Andes said.

Volunteers received meat only if they stayed for the full four-day commitment and if the teams were successful in taking an elk.

"It was a wonderful experience working with the tribes on the meat distribution," Naylor said in the release. "We are also very pleased at the amount of clean elk meat that we were able to donate to Sportsmen Against Hunger for state food pantries. A lot of people will benefit from these donations."

As part of the project, the park plans to conduct another reduction beginning this fall.

Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to check the park's website at www.nps.gov/thro for more information.

The Dickinson Press and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.