State’s Elk Conservation Plan Criticized

. (Lee Eastman/USFWS)

The following press release is courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity:

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— Conservation groups (Monday) slammed the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s flawed draft Elk Conservation and Management Plan as weak on elk recovery and short on science.

The plan is meant to guide the management and continued recovery of the state’s three elk species — tule, Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk. California’s elk population is only a fraction of the species’ historic numbers. Even so, the draft sets recovery targets that are far too low to make any significant gains.

Today’s comment letter notes that the draft plan lacks some basic information on elk abundance and distribution — numbers needed to inform hunting quotas. Without that data, hunting risks population decline or even loss for already-struggling herds. The proposed plan relies on hunting to deal with elk and human conflicts when other methods — such as hazing, fencing and relocation — are likely more effective. It also lays the groundwork for killing wolves if arbitrary elk population targets are not met.

“This draft plan is short on sound science and cheats our beloved elk populations of the meaningful recovery actions they need to thrive,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The state’s proposal to move toward killing wolves to boost elk populations is not supported by any research and is not how Californians want to see wildlife managed.”

“Elk almost went extinct in California because of past mismanagement,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director at the Environmental Protection Information Center. “The draft elk plan worries me because it doesn’t appear to be based on sound science but rather a desire to expand hunting. The draft plan needs peer review before the state starts implementing its proposals.”

The state fish and wildlife department developed the elk plan with funding, input and lobbying from hunting and agricultural interests — but not from advocates or experts on elk conservation, research, education or ecotourism. As a result, the draft elk plan focuses too much on controlling elk to benefit hunting and ranching interests. The plan proposes increasing elk hunting by 10 percent, without any information or evidence that increasing hunting tags will be effective to address elk conflicts. The plan acknowledges that state wildlife officials have no idea what constitutes the minimum population necessary for long-term viability of elk herds.

“Slow progress has been made recovering elk in California, but we can do a lot better,” Miller added. “The focus should be on expanding existing elk herds and improving habitat connectivity, along with reintroducing elk where possible. The state’s hunting tag quotas for elk should be based on good science, take into consideration herd size and population trends, and support elk recovery.”

Historically there were an estimated 500,000 elk in California. There are now approximately 5,700 Roosevelt elk, 1,500 Rocky Mountain elk and 5,700 tule elk. Tule elk occur only in California.

Because many of the proposed management activities and unsubstantiated assertions in the draft plan lack scientific basis, conservation groups are asking that the plan be peer-reviewed by independent wildlife biologists with expertise regarding elk.

The plan attempts to scapegoat California’s newly returning wolves for unrelated elk population trends. Similar to the department’s 2016 conservation plan for gray wolves in California, the draft elk plan proposes arbitrary triggers for removing and killing wolves (as well as coyotes and bears) if elk population thresholds or hunter big game tag allocations aren’t met.

As written, the plan promotes fear-mongering that wolves could significantly affect or extirpate elk populations, an assertion that lacks any scientific basis. The plan also falsely claims that the state’s Wolf Stakeholder Working Group supports their proposal to kill and remove wolves based on these arbitrary thresholds.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) advocates for the protection and restoration of Northwest California’s forests, public land, and wildlife, using an integrated, science-based approach, combining public education, citizen advocacy, and strategic litigation.