A Jackson photographer who has sued to stop the annual elk hunt in Grand Teton National Park has secured a license to shoot an elk starting Oct. 24.
Timothy Mayo said he bought the license to show that officials are not following laws requiring park hunters to be qualified and experienced. A plaintiff in the 2014 suit against the U.S. Department of Interior and National Park Service, Mayo said he purchased his license over the counter at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department office in Jackson without demonstrating any marksmanship abilities.
A park spokesman said Monday that Mayo’s possession of a hunter safety card satisfies the legal requirements for qualifications and experience. Mayo disagrees. Officials have no idea whether he could hit the broad side of a barn, he said.
“When I did take the [hunter safety] course they had basically play guns,” Mayo said. Instructors asked rudimentary questions like “Do you know the difference between a turkey and an elk?” he said.
“It’s about as simplistic as can be,” he said. “There is no measurement of marksmanship. You’re never asked to shoot a gun.”
Mayo said he worries that unqualified or inexperienced hunters endanger park visitors, including photographers like him.
“We’re looking down the barrel of greatly increased visitation in the parks,” he said. “This park hunt was established in a different time. Putting so many visitors at risk, as they do for over a month every year — eventually somebody’s going to get tapped.”
Grand Teton spokesman Andrew White said that the Park Service expects to issue permits to those who hold Wyoming Game and Fish licenses for the Grand Teton elk hunt. The permits list 13 conditions, including that hunters carry their certified hunter-safety cards.
“Really, that’s where it all lies,” White said. “If they carry that hunter-safety card, they’re saying they’re a qualified and experienced hunter.”
1,000 elk targeted this year
Grand Teton National Park and Wyoming Game and Fish Department are targeting 1,000 elk from Grand Teton and parts of Yellowstone national parks. They propose issuing 650 licenses to hunt inside Grand Teton National Park itself, according to an agreement signed by state and federal officials.
It is unlikely Grand Teton hunters will kill and harvest 650 elk in Grand Teton, however. In 2013 for example, hunters shot and collected only 202 elk in the park during a similar season.
The rest of the 1,000 elk would be killed and harvested on nearby private, state and federal lands, including on the National Elk Refuge. The 2015 hunt is necessary based on elk numbers, herd sex and age ratios, migration patterns and the number of elk being fed at the National Elk Refuge, among other factors. Field biologists say the park hunt serves long-range objectives of restoring historic distributions and migration patterns and encouraging elk to use fall and winter ranges in southern Grand Teton.
The hunt will run through Dec. 13, unless weather makes a longer season necessary. No bull elk are targeted.
Elk that spend summers in southern Grand Teton reproduce at more than twice the rate of the northern migratory segment, biologists say in documents supporting the hunt. So the hunt “focuses more liberal harvest on the southern segments.”
About 8,400 elk ate supplemental winter feed on the nearby National Elk Refuge last winter, far above the objective of 5,000 wintering elk. The Elk Refuge population has been above the goal for six of the past seven winters.
“To reduce NER wintering herd segment toward the goal of 5,000 elk, a harvest of elk that summer in GTNP and hunt area 78, and winter on the NER is desired,” managers said. Area 78 is mostly private land just south of the park, including ranches and rural subdivisions.
Mayo’s lawsuit claims the Grand Teton elk hunt disrupts his photography and endangers visitors and grizzly bears. He recently wrote to Grand Teton Superintendent David Vela protesting the system that he said allows even preteens to take part in the shooting.
“Last August I asked you NOT to deputize me as a Grand Teton National Park ranger-hunter … because I knew that neither you nor the Wyoming Game and Fish Department had vetted me in order to establish that I was a qualified and experienced hunter, as required and defined by the 1950 founding legislation,” Mayo wrote. “Please know that deputizing me and over 600 other individuals without any attempt to establish our qualifications is certain to result in hunting tragedies this fall.”
The hunter safety course involved taking an online test and spending only a half a day at a rifle range with the dummy rifles, he said.
“There’s never a questionnaire — ‘Do you have any experience?’” he said. “There’s no way in that process where they qualify you in any way, shape or form. It’s time for this to change.”
If an elk reduction program is necessary, Mayo said, it should be conducted in a more orderly fashion than is currently the practice. He suggested rangers might guide riflemen and women who have demonstrated sharpshooting abilities.
Many people don’t understand why hunters are allowed to shoot elk in a national park. Congress authorized the hunt when the park boundary was expanded in 1950.
Bad hunting practices as recently as 2012, including shooting into herds of running elk that sometimes results in wounded animals hobbling into the woods, have given the hunt a bad name. Grand Teton has instituted rules to rein in the mayhem.
In 2013 Grand Teton limited hunters to seven non-lead bullets a day. Also, hunters now can only shoot once at a group of running elk.
Nevertheless, a Grand Teton brochure says “hiking is not recommended in areas of the park and [John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway] adjacent to or within hunt areas.”
At least three groups have sued challenging the Grand Teton hunt, officially called an elk-reduction program. Among the lawsuits’ arguments are that the hunt endangers protected grizzly bears. In 2012 Grand Teton hunters shot a grizzly bear, a federally protected species, claiming self-defense.
Read these related stories:
Suit: Grand Teton Park elk hunt risks grizzly bears, April 2015
Photographers sue to stop Grand Teton elk hunt, October 2014