HomeOutdoorsNewsSand Dunes National Park Enlists Sharpshooters to Disperse Elk for Hunters

Sand Dunes National Park Enlists Sharpshooters to Disperse Elk for Hunters

by Craig Garrett
Noble Elk - stock photo

Authorities are testing the sharpshooting skills of hundreds of volunteers to help with elk overcrowding at Greater Sand Dunes National Park. A large number of elk have started to winter inside the park in recent years due to the hunting season, CBS News reports. Hunting is forbidden there. You can go hunting in the Greater Sand Dunes National Preserve that are east of the sand dunes, as well as neighboring areas that are overseen by U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service. It seems the elk have figured out a safe haven to not get shot at.

There’s already a herd of bison on that beachfront property, so there isn’t room for both. According to the National Park Service, in 2019 “historic levels of elk” began having negative effects on certain areas of the park–such as wetland vegetation communities that are particularly important to the existing bison herd. Because of CPW’s “dispersal” program from last year, bullets will once again be flying in the safe zone.

Thousands responded for the application request to become a sharpshooter

Initially, the agency only requested applications from citizen volunteers to begin this year’s effort. However, within 24 hours of opening up applications, more than 2,000 people had responded. As a result, CPW shut down the application process. According to a press release from CPW, this is not an opportunity for recreation or fun – it is an intensive elk management effort.

According to a National Park Service document though, the dispersal operation includes both hazing and culling. “Lethal removal will be conducted by NPS staff with support from authorized agents and trained volunteers, which could include other agency personnel and members of American Indian tribes,” the document details. “Non-lethal hazing methods will include the utilization of hazing by horseback, motorized vehicle, shooting non-lethal rounds, and other noisemaking.”

Volunteer sharpshooters have to pass testing to qualify for elk herd management

During the qualification shoot to become a CPW volunteer, test-takers must hit small targets. The targets are elk vitals sized – at 200 and 300 yards 3 times in a row within three minutes. “This qualification has proven to be difficult for even the most seasoned elk hunters,” explained CPW Area Wildlife Manager Rick Basagoitia. “This standard is likely the minimum allowable standard given the difficulty of the work we need volunteers to do.” 

John Livingston, spokesman for CPW’s Southwest Region, also weighed in on the issue. “This is a unique situation being addressed in a unique way,” he told a local CBS affiliate. “The issue is that a large number of elk have learned they are safe from hunting pressure in this area. Too many are congregating there, which leads to issues of potential increased disease spread, potential increases to game damage, etc.”

Livingston continued, mentioning that the rifle shooters would be using lead-free ammunition while on national park property. This operation is set apart from other CPW herd management plans throughout the Southwest Region. There is no specific starting date, but it is planned to continue until February 2023.

5,000 elk and 1,700 bison occupied the San Luis Valley according to a 2019 count. The NPS stated “redistribution efforts would cease immediately” if elk were sent into agricultural lands nearby.