Roosevelt park sensitive about containing elk, has tough rules

MEDORA, N.D. -- Mark Hadley left North Dakota a very disappointed man. He was among three of 20 volunteers who failed to place three of five nonlead bullets in a small target at 200 yards to qualify to be on a Theodore Roosevelt National Park elk...

In this Nov. 9, 2010 photo, volunteer Daylen Langerud, left, and wildlife biologist and elk reduction coordinator Wade Jones take biological samples from one of the cow elk killed inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, N.D. The park is using sharp shooters to reduce the population of 1,000 elk to as few as 100. The goal is to kill 275 cow elk this year. (AP Photo/The Bismarck Tribune, Lauren Donovan)

MEDORA, N.D. -- Mark Hadley left North Dakota a very disappointed man.

He was among three of 20 volunteers who failed to place three of five nonlead bullets in a small target at 200 yards to qualify to be on a Theodore Roosevelt National Park elk reduction team.

He'd done it at his home rifle range in Minnesota. He lost his edge in the tense situation of proving up in the presence of a large group.

"I'd been looking forward to this for months," he said at the range near Medora.

Anyone who fails the marksman test can't even leave the rifle and hike along. Hadley said he'd drive 10 hours back home.


Those are the rules.

The point is that only the truest bullets are fired.

Missed precious shots or, worse, wounded elk don't help.

"That this is humane is at the very top of the list, along with safety. That's why we give the test," said Mike Oehler, chief of the park's resource division.

Oehler's small resource building on the north side of Medora will be elk central for 10 more weeks.

The park has now put the wraps on a successful second week of its tightly managed elk reduction program, using five volunteer teams of four and a team leader each week.

The goal is to kill at least 275 cow elk this year and reduce the population of 1,000 to as few as 100 in the next five years.

Volunteer teams took 31 elk the first week and 35 the following week. Another 23 were killed in prior field testing by park staff.


It has taken seven years for the elk reduction plan to reach implementation.

Wade Jones, a wildlife biologist and the elk reduction coordinator, cut to the chase in an orientation-training meeting recently with volunteers.

"This is not a slaughter," he said. "We don't need high-fiving out there or taking inappropriate pictures over dead elk."

On a recent Tuesday, before sunrise, Jones and team leader Chad Tucker, left Medora with volunteers, Daylen Langerud, 20, Watford City, N.D., and Scot Ingman, 50, Dickinson, N.D. The third volunteer, Hadley, had failed to qualify, so his father, the fourth, left with him.

The plan was to hike out into the northwestern corner of the park up to Big Plateau, leaving from Peaceful Valley Ranch. It was cold, about 35 degrees, and a steady miserable rain was falling.

The drive out was quiet, but for some rumblings about missing that morning's cup of joe. The power had gone out during the night and the whole valley was pitch dark; no coffee perking anywhere.

It was barely light enough to see when the group reached the Little Missouri River and loaded up a small jonboat to pole across.

The plateau beyond the river is a known browsing ground for elk. The hike to the top was amply rewarded with the sight of 100 elk in three groups, feeding hard in the cold. The four conferred in quiet voices and decided to drop back into a draw and head around the plateau for a better vantage.


A group of elk was in range as they emerged back on high ground.

Langerud, Ingman and Tucker got on their bellies to set up their rifles. Ingman fired first at 100 yards, with follow fire from Tucker. A few minutes later, Langerud fired at 255 yards with follow fire from Tucker.

That fast, it was done.

The remaining elk and a small herd of bison on the east side of the plateau seemed undisturbed, steadfastly browsing the grass. The men lifted their heads to the harsh full-throated sound of bull elks' bugling as they went about dressing the two mature cows and taking eight tissue and blood samples from each. The samples will measure general health and age of the elk, as well as the unlikely presence of chronic wasting disease.

The meat was placed in white cotton bags that looked like tube socks and tagged for each of the volunteers. They will get the meat from one elk, with the remainder donated to tribes and to food banks.

Tucker entered the location of the elk in a GPS unit and relayed the information to a packer who would carry the meat down off the plateau to cold storage in Medora.

Gene Koch, of Sidney, Mont., had his horse and three mules ready to head up Big Plateau by the time the team had hiked down and recrossed the Little Missouri River.

Koch said he's an accountant in real life, but he looked all western packer in chaps, rain slicker and worn brimmed hat to keep the rain off his face. "It's a unique experience to be part of this management effort. I just wanted to be part of it," he said. He's getting paid, but he'd have volunteered some days just to be able to do it, he said.


As Koch got his bearings and struck out for the plateau, the team headed back in. The volunteers were done for that day by about noon and would go out again Wednesday and Thursday.

Ingman, warming up with hot tea at the Cowboy Cafe, said he'd had quite the morning.

"It was just an awesome experience to hear those elk bugle, the elk mewing so loud," he said.

The totality of the experience was hard to explain.

"There's a lot of emotion after you pull the trigger. You're happy it was a good shot and a humane kill, but you also just took a life," he said.

Both Langerud and Ingman said Jones and Tucker, from the park staff, kept them in a very safe, very realistic situation.

"I can't commend them enough," Ingman said.

If they could volunteer again next year, they would.


"It's a blast. I can't think of a better way to do it," Langerud said.

Tucker said the volunteers deserve credit, too.

"Everything's been going perfect, like clockwork," he said. "The volunteers have been top notch."

Still, there's reason to keep fingers crossed that no one breaks a leg, or worse, out there in 46,000 remote acres of Badlands, where like that recent Tuesday, the bentonite clay underfoot turns greasy in the rain.

Oehler said in the end, the experience each volunteer has is up to him or her.

"This is an opportunity that only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of Americans will ever have. That's not why we're doing it, but it is a byproduct of the management tool." Oehler said so far, so good. "We're pleased. This is on schedule, but the weather is going to change things. We all know this is as good as it gets."

The process, down to the kind of ammunition and rifle, location and time of each kill is being closely documented by park staff. The reduction may become a model for other national parks, where killing also is normally prohibited but where the enclosure of wildlife in protected habitat has caused overpopulation issues.

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