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A hunt by any other name trims elk herd, fights chronic wasting disease in Wind Cave National Park
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The Wind Cave elk herd has been cut to fight chronic wasting disease
Photo/Wind Cave National Park

It was a hunt beyond all hunts for Nina Ringstmeyer, and she never bagged an elk.

She did bag a bunch of backcountry scenery in Wind Cave National Park, absorbing images that will last a lifetime. She also got to know the elk herd in the park on a personal basis and help with a herd-reduction plan and research project aimed at cutting disease rates and improving elk management.

She had a pretty good workout, too, packing her rifle and other gear on hikes that sometimes topped 12 miles in spectacular, undulating terrain that elevates the spirit and the heart rate, while challenging the legs and lungs.

“They just kept telling me, ‘Oh, it’s a gentle incline, just a gentle incline,’” says Ringstmeyer, a 37-year-old Hot Springs resident who works as an outreach consultant for the South Dakota School for the Deaf. “And at one point I had to hold on to the border fence to get up one of those gentle inclines.”

Nobody said it would be easy. Quite the opposite, in fact.  When National Park Service personnel last year sent out notices that members of the public were being sought to shoot elk in the park in a herd-reduction project, they warned of the rigors involved.

First, volunteers needed to be able to hike 10 miles carrying a 70-pound backpack, and slog through the snow and cold. And cold. And did I mention cold?

“Just about all of them didn’t realize just how physical it was going to be,” says Greg Schroeder, chief of resource management at Wind Cave. “If it wasn’t 20-below and the wind blowing, we were out there.”

So they needed to be tough. Next, they needed to be able to shoot. Straight. Several times in succession. And there was a test.

“They had to be able to put three out of five rounds in an 8-inch-diameter circle from 200 yards,” Schroeder said. “Because most of the shots they were going to get would be 200 to 300 yards out.”

Those who passed the shooting test were then set for the hunt of a lifetime. Uh, except the park folks didn’t call it a hunt. And they get a little jumpy when somebody else does.

That’s because it would literally take an act of Congress for Wind Cave to have a traditional hunt similar to those that have been held for certain species in adjoining Custer State Park. Some national park units have such an authority written into their rules. Most don’t. Wind Cave is one of the don’ts.

So the, uh, hunt was called a “management action,” and the hunters, er, guys with the guns, were called “skilled volunteers.”

The volunteers were chosen through an online lottery system, provided they were in good shape and could shoot — and could prove it on long-range targets, in conditions that were often less than ideal. Which means pretty normal for western South Dakota.

“The day we qualified the wind was blowing direct crosswind left at 35 to 40 miles an hour,” says Gary Hansen of Black Hawk, another volunteer who qualified. “You really had to adjust to the wind. There were five in our group and one didn’t qualify.”

That wasn’t a problem for Hansen, a 47-year-old Faith native whose father was a long-serving animal-damage-control pilot for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department. With a lifetime of hunting experience, he had dealt with wind in rifle-shooting situations many times before.

So he qualified along with the team that included Ringstmeyer, and their week as volunteers was near the end of November, when Hansen shot seven cow elk and two bulls that were selected by park staffers serving as team guides.

Because it wasn’t just about numbers. It was about shooting animals that would best serve the reduction-research goal. And, of course, animals that didn’t look healthy.

Ringstmeyer got some shots, too, but she couldn’t shoot straight because of a scope problem that developed between the time she qualified and the opportunities on elk in the field.

“It kept coming loose, and I just didn’t have the accuracy with it,” she said.

After three days in which she focused more on the experience and helping other teammates than the gunning, she decided she’d had enough.

“A couple went back out on a Friday, but I was afraid I might wound an elk,” she said. “And by that point I didn’t want to spend a day looking for a wounded elk.”

Instead, she celebrated the outdoor experience she had, and in particular enjoyed playing a role in the research aspects and elk-reduction goals of the project.

“I think that was one of the coolest parts, being part of that study on elk, which they said was one of the biggest in the nation right now,” Ringstmeyer says. “It was fun, and really an amazing experience.”

Now that the shooting is over, the research is well underway. Schroeder and other wildlife expert are hoping the herd reduction and biological samples produced by the guns of  the 48 volunteers who trudged the backcountry armed with rifles this winter will help in the fight against chronic-wasting disease.

It’s serious stuff, because CWD is a fatal brain disorder similar to mad cow disease but affecting elk and deer. In Wind Cave, it affects an unusual number of elk. And it seems to be getting worse.

“The first time we found it in the park was 2002,” Schroeder says. “Then the state had a 2005-to-2009 project that estimated the CWD rate in the elk here at 3 percent. The survey from 2012-2014 put it closer to 10 percent.”

Schroeder expects testing done on the 262 elk shot and killed over the winter will show the CWD rate to be “over 10 percent.” Which is why he and other park officials formed a rare partnership with hunters, who by any other name behaved pretty much the same: they pulled the trigger. Those who qualified, at least.

 “Twenty five percent of the volunteers failed the shooting test or didn’t show up and were out,” Schroeder says.

Along with the tight grouping on the target, they had to use non-toxic — meaning no lead — rifle bullets, which some hunters think can be trickier to shoot.

But even then, it wasn’t just up to the hunters. They were backed up by armed park staffers who led the daily excursions on foot, pointed out specific elk to be shot and fired follow-up rounds to make sure the animals went down quickly.

“If the elk didn’t go down right away, we’d take a follow-up shot,” Schroeder said.

From there, other park personnel responded quickly to get the elk retrieved and taken to a processing point in the park. There was no field dressing of the carcasses, because officials wanted to reduce the possibility of spreading CWD in the environment.

And when the carcasses were processed, great care was taken to protect the people doing the work and prevent cross contamination with CWD.

“We brought elk out of the field whole and took them to the old Casey property, where they were weighed and skinned, gutted and sampled,” Schroeder said.

I'll get to the Casey property in a minute. Suffice it to say that it has an intriguging history, including its CWD connection.

Once back on that land, they used the same gloves and knifes and other cleaning material for one animal, then discarded the gloves and soaked cleaning tools in a bleach solution for an hour before using them on other elk.

The research will help estimate the current CWD rate in the herd. But it will also help determine if culling the herd and reducing its numbers reduces the CWD rate. In addition, samples are being shared with Wyoming wildlife researches involved in studies on predation impacts and brucellosis.

And those carcasses tested and determined to be CWD free went to Feeding South Dakota, a non-profit with the goal of eliminating hunger in the state. Smaller amounts went to the hunters, er, skilled volunteers, themselves.

Wind Cave and Feeding South Dakota were joined in the food distribution effort by the state Game, Fish & Parks Department, the Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club, Sportsmen Against Hunger and the Greater Dacotah Chapter of Safari Club International.

Feeding South Dakota CEO Matt Gassen said in a news release from the park that the project provided more than 7 tons of elk meat for the hungry in South Dakota. And Native Americans in particular were beneficiaries.

“Due to the cultural significance of elk, a significant share of the meat harvested from Wind Cave was distributed throughout the nine Native American reservations in South Dakota,” Gassen said. “This highly nutritious meat helped to provide a source of protein to hundreds of families in need.”

Hansen ended up killing nine elk during that that first week of gunning in November and 13 more in two separate weeks in late January. He had volunteered to return if needed. And ended up filling in for people who didn’t show up or didn’t qualify.

For a big-game hunter, it was a rare opportunity to practice the craft, sharpen rifle skills and fine-tune understanding of elk behavior by actually hunting and shooting the big animals.

“From a hunter’s standpoint, it really gave you the opportunity for shot placement,” he said. “You just don’t get that many chances with elk.”

Hansen said he and other hunters tried to be especially thoughtful about when and where they shot an elk if the animals led them relatively close to roads commonly used by the public.  They didn’t want to upset any park visitors.

“We wanted to make sure no animals got shot in front of anybody,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we presented a good image and didn’t alarm or upset anybody.”

Hansen said he enjoyed the rigors of the field trips and the hard, careful work of helping process the elk carcasses. And, of course, the elk meat confirmed to be CWD free was worth celebrating, too.

Ringstymeyer said the elk steaks didn’t appeal to her, “because I could kind of taste what I’d been hunting.” But she loves the German sausage, smoked roasts and breakfast sausage she and her husband made from the elk.

What she loves even more is the idea of helping the park in its herd management, and maybe benefiting elk research and management on an even bigger scale.

“That’s the most important thing,” she said.

Of the 262 elk shot by volunteers during the late fall and winter field trips, 260 were sampled for CWD. And 34 tested positive for CWD.

All elk shot were removed from the field whole to prevent spread of CWD. The carcasses were taken to a processing location on part of the park that was purchased by the National Park Service in 2011 from The Conservation Fund, a non-profit dedicated to preserving important lands across the nation. The Conservation Fund had purchased 5,556 acres from the Casey family with the intention of holding it for the park.

The National Park Service was able to purchase the property with funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which receives money from federally held offshore oil and gas rights. And the timing was fortunate, because that funding is now up for sharp reduction under a budget plan by President Donald Trump.

The Casey land includes an historic homestead and a 4,000-year-old buffalo jump, where indigenous hunters are believed to have chased bison over a cliff so they could be butchered for food and other essentials. The land also holds exceptional grasslands and forest sections  that are important to elk and other wildlife.

But the property came with a troubled history, too, because a domestic elk herd owned by the Casey family was infected with CWD in the 1990s and had to be destroyed and buried on the location. After that, the family raised bison on the ranch for a time prior to selling the property to The Conservation Fund.

Since that area was known to already have had CWD, it was chosen for the processing site for elk taken by volunteers.

“Everybody used rubber gloves. We used one set of knives for each animal, separate syringes, everything,” Hansen said. “We made sure specific meat was tagged all the way through, so when processed they could really look at it.”

As an experienced hunter, Hansen says he particularly enjoyed joining less experienced hunters as they stalked and shot their first elk.

“Seeing someone who’d never shot an elk get calmed down and take the shot, then be able to say, ‘Hey, I’ve shot an elk!’ That was pretty neat,” Hansen says.

Because whatever you call it, the environmental conditions and the reactions of the elk were very much like a hunt.

“Elk are spooky. And these elk were no different,” Hansen said. “If that lead cow senses you, she’s gone. And away they go.”

Another part of the volunteer work that was very real to an experienced hunter was the processing.

“Like any other hunt, once you pull the trigger, the work begins,” Hansen said.

The work of research will continue for years beyond the butchering, as park officials try to find the best size for the herd and its health. Without regular hunting mortality in the park, the elk herd has in the past grown to troublesome levels, sometimes angering nearby ranchers who said the big animals damaged fences and gobbled feed supplies.

The park is fenced, but elk are hard to contain. They can wiggle under and jump over, and sometimes just sort of blast through. Better fencing in recent years has helped with that problem.

The herd reached 1,100 to 1,200 in the 1950s, and park staffers reduced it by shooting elk. During the '50s, Wind Cave staffers worked with Custer State Park personnel to reduce the herd to less than 200 at one point. Wind Cave National Park records show that in 1954 700 elk were shot by CSP employees supervised by Wind Cave personnel. Custer Park had a processing facility then for its bison herd and butchered the elk there, some of which was sold while some went to Native American reservations.

Elk were also baited from Wind Cave into Custer Park in the 1950s to increase the herd on state land. But overpopulation in the park didn't end there. Park officials helped limit the size of the her by transferring elk to other state, federal or tribal agencies for a number of years. Such transfers ended with the CWD infections, however. And without continuing control, the herd resumed growth and was estimated at 900 to 950 as recently as 2011.

Working with Game, Fish & Parks wildlife managers, park officials have in recent years worked to reduced the herd in efforts that included lowering portions of the fence with Custer State Park and driving elk onto state land. Custer Park officials welcomed the animals to bolster their herd.

Prior to this winter, the elk herd in Wind Cave was estimated at 525. By essentially cutting the herd in half, managers have it down down in the target management range going into calving season. Schroeder and other wildlife pros in the park will decide this fall whether additional elk need to be shot.

“We want to keep the herd about where it is now,” he says.

But if guns are needed, it would likely mean killing a couple dozen instead of hundreds to keep the population steady and healthier. And the wildlife pros suspect fewer concentrations of elk will also mean less CWD spread. The coming years of research will help them determine whether that's true.

“We hope to determine whether this management action prevents CWD from increasing or even decreases it,” Schroeder said. “Hopefully, we’ll see a decrease.”

It’s unclear whether volunteer hunters will be needed again. But if they are, Nina Ringstmeyer might offer some advice:

Check your scope and watch out for that gentle incline. It’s a doozy.