Anita Merrigan: Humans have significant impact on elk population
January 14, 2019
Examining the natural history of American elk along with recent studies showing the status of Earth and her bounty provide perspective when debating whether more 2A trails are appropriate for Steamboat Springs.
• Prior to European settlement, more than 10 million elk roamed nearly all of the United States
• By the early 1900s, less than 50,000 elk remained in Colorado after a period of unregulated market hunting, resulting in population restoration efforts
• Today, about one million elk live in the western United States, with around 280,000 in Colorado, a significant decrease from the time of European settlement (Colorado Parks and Wildlife).
• The numbers don't lie. We humans have had a significant impact on elk populations — both good and bad, but mostly bad — in a very short period of time.
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Despite elk populations rebounding during the last century, threats to their welfare are compounding and increasing:
• Spread of chronic wasting and tick-borne diseases
• Human habitat encroachment
• Habitat changes from warming mountain temperatures
We humans are largely responsible for these threats. We bear a responsibility to mitigate them because elk and other species have a right to life.
Recent studies of human impact upon Earth's ecosystems and their nonhuman inhabitants are revealing.
• The 2018 Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund revealed that in just two generations of humans — since the 1970s — we've wiped out 60 percent of all mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians on Earth.
• A high-resolution map study published last week in Global Change Biology, Kennedy, Christina et al. reveals that only 5 percent of Earth's surface is unaffected by humans, much less than the previous estimate of 19 percent. Ninety-five percent of Earth's land surface shows evidence of human modification while 84 percent has multiple human impacts.
These reports should be setting off alarm bells worldwide. We must ask ourselves if we, as a species, as a society and as a community, want to contribute to these problems or work to solve them. Solving them ultimately benefits humans, as a high degree of biodiversity is necessary for our health and welfare.
Any human disenfranchisement of our elk neighbors — the derogation or destruction of their habitat — must be weighed extremely carefully in relation to the benefit we humans receive from the disenfranchisement.
One new trail or chair lift could mean the difference to the extinction of a local elk population. How will we know when we've crossed the line?