MEDORA Uncertain about what to expect, a recent participant in the elk reduction program at the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park calls the experience "very unique, challenging and rewarding."
The second season of elk reduction recently concluded at the park. The decision to allow elk hunting, or management, to be conducted at the National Park came only after lengthy and heated debate over how, even if, the hunt should be conducted. The park had too many elk and the herd was growing yearly.
Early management options included "helicopter shoots" and the importing of "trained sharpshooters." Eventually, but not until red tape was stretched as far as possible and North Dakota's congressional delegation, governor and Game and Fish Department became involved, was the most obvious solution chosen -- let hunters hunt.
Submitted Photo - - An observer watches through a spotting scope as a shooter prepares a shot. Participants in the elk reduction program at Theodore Roosevelt National Park were required to demonstrate proper shooting skills prior to joining the hunt.
Some said the elk reduction plan would amount to little more than herding the animals up against a high fence and shooting them. Greg Gullickson, Benedict, said he had reservations about hunting inside of a pen. Nevertheless, he applied to participate and was a successful applicant.
All hunter volunteers were required to pass a shooting proficiency test before they would be approved for the hunt. Gullickson used a .300 ultra-mag and successfully qualified despite challenging winds.
"You had to hit an eight-inch circle three of five times at 200 yards," said Gullickson, an outreach biologist with Game and Fish. "I would challenge North Dakota deer hunters to try that. We had a 25 mile per hour crosswind. I had to walk my shots to the center of the circle. It sounds easy, but with 25 people watching? It teaches you a lot about the importance of a bipod."
One shooter among the group was using shooting sticks and failed to qualify. According to park superintendent Valerie Naylor, 200 volunteers were chosen but more than 60 failed to complete the five-week assignment.
"We had a guy quit after the first day. It was just too physically demanding for him," Gullickson said.
Gullickson participated from Nov. 28 through Dec. 3. The three-person team to which he was assigned took 11 of the 41 elk taken during that week. Hunting was done entirely on foot in the sprawling and rugged park that covers more than 46,000 acres.
"Although it wasn't a hunt, per se, it ranks right up there as one of my most rewarding outdoor experiences," Gullickson said. "One of the best things was the scenery, the beauty, the wildlife. We saw pronghorn, sharptail, jackrabbits, mule deer, coyotes I just kind of took in the whole experience."
The experience included beginning each day by hiking into the park before sunrise and hiking out of the park in the dark. When an elk was taken it was butchered on location. The meat was packed in bags, sometimes to be carried out on horses or mules. When the terrain was too rough to permit pack animals, the meat had to be carried on individual backpacks.
"Some days we hiked 11 miles. Sometimes we packed out 75 pounds each on our backs," Gullickson said. "You'd spend close to 12 hours in the field with nothing but what you brought with you. I've never had a homemade sandwich taste so good!"
Because the oil boom in western North Dakota has reduced lodging to a premium, Gullickson elected to stay in his well-equipped camper/fish house. It was a good choice, allowing him to make an evening meal and get some much needed sleep in preparation for the following day.
Mike Oehler, park biologist, was the leader of Gullickson's team. He shared a great deal of information with other team members during the week, something Gullickson said added greatly to the experience.
"He was really good," Gullickson said. "I can't say enough about the professionalism of the Park Service. They really did a great
job. We covered the whole park from north to south and east to west. The history side of it was really interesting. Theodore Roosevelt was the conservationist and I was able to walk where he once walked. He'd be pleased today. Hunting done in the right manner is a good conservation practice."
According to Gullickson, there was nothing automatic about the hunt. The elk proved much more elusive than expected, hardly the tame and cooperative animals many suggested they'd encounter.
"You had to use every ounce of hunting knowledge to get within range of the elk. It was very much a team effort," Gullickson said. "We probably saw 500 elk in the week and I never saw a big elk -- just cows, raghorns and spikes."
Gullickson took home about 150 pounds of elk meat, which was a rewarding option for participants.
"I was able to pick up my meat from the same elk that I shot," Gullickson said. "For me, that kind of completes the trip."
This past harvest resulted in 462 elk being killed. A total of 406 were taken the first year. Much of the meat has been distributed. According to Naylor, 25,000 pounds of elk meat has been donated to American Indians in North Dakota and 20,000 pounds to the Sportsmen Against Hunger program.
Odds of being drawn for the initial hunt, which received applicants from more than 40 states, were less than 2 percent. This past year the odds had increased to about 20 percent with applications received from 33 states. No decision about whether or not the hunt will continue next year has been made at this time.
"We just don't know yet. We're definitely getting closer," said Wade Jones, elk reduction coordinator for the park. "If we do it again it probably will be a scaled down version -- just can't say for sure until we get a good look at the numbers.
"We've had good volunteers and good seasonal team leaders that have been the real key to the success," he said.