The arrival of the elk – another “what is nature?” story

courtesy NM Department of Game and Fish

courtesy NM Department of Game and Fish

My Journal colleague Charles Brunt had a fascinating tale in this morning’s Albuquerque Journal about the Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge’s struggle with elk.

Located on the Rio Grande in central New Mexico, the Bosque is famous among birders, a winter home to a flock of some 10,000 sandhill cranes. It’s always been my personal case study for thinking about human efforts to create and manage “nature” – an intensely managed landscape, with a rich and complex plumbing system of fields, ditches and gates designed to mimic an arid landscape riparian flood plain that no longer exists.

The refuge managers grow corn for the birds, and they’ve always had to manage it carefully to draw the right birds (cranes) while tolerating the wrong birds (snow and Ross’s geese, a species with a serious overpopulation problem). Now the corn has drawn a second pest – elk:

Elk in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge are devastating the corn crop that feeds the refuge’s migratory birds, leading wildlife managers to begin killing some of the animals for the first time since elk migrated there two decades ago.

And while New Mexico Department of Game and Fish officials and their counterparts at the refuge agree the herd needs to be thinned, there’s disagreement on who should kill the elk, and when they should do it.

Nature’s hard to get right.