Wilderness management, a term famed for its oxymoronic nature, is a constant conversation within Rocky Mountain National Park. One of the most controversial examples of human intervention into the wild landscape and ecological processes within the Park is the Elk and Vegetation Management Plan. A comprehensive study, representing the work of countless departments, stakeholder interactions and assessments and research money, the Elk and Vegetation Management Plan works to control the overabundant elk population within the Park and provide opportunities for habitat regeneration and riparian improvement, especially for species such as the beaver, aspen and willow. One of the most visible, and unpopular, pieces of the plan is the implementation of elk exclosures, large fenced in areas which exclude elk from certain grazing areas, giving opportunity to many other species who desperately need the regeneration of their habitats and growing areas to remain within the Park.
Rocky describes the plan as “[relying] on a variety of conservation tools including temporary fencing, vegetation restoration, redistribution and culling. The park may use additional management tools in the future using adaptive management principles.”
The plan, though arrived at through careful mediation with local groups, visitors and other important stakeholders, is nevertheless controversial to many park-goers, and is under constant need for interpretation. As part of seasonal staff training for the department of interpretation and education, this week I went out in the field to actually see one of these exclosures firsthand and process what this plan meant for the Park with my coworkers.
The results, even after only a few years since its implementation in 2014, are striking. Even at a distance the disparity between areas on either side of the exclosures is obvious, with lush, tall and thick vegetation within the exclosures and sparser, shorter growth to the exterior. Water tables within the exclosures have risen significantly, allowing the dry, flatter meadows created by home-steading within the Park for the last century to return to the marshy, wet and lush riparian lands they once were. Even as the results are tangible, and Park employee consensus is that it is wholly beneficial to the ecological integrity of the Park, it is still fraught with controversy.
What is the role of human intervention in wilderness management? Have we created a cycle of human intervention that we can never reverse? What truly constitutes wilderness? How mindful must we be of the urban-wild interface when we as a Park imagine solutions to our most pressing problems?
The fences will likely remain for the next ten years, to the dismay of many visitors, but how long will we see the mark of human impact in a Park that is 95% designated wilderness area?