Proposed management plan shared for elk, bison at Great Sand Dunes


ALAMOSA — Elk and bison herd management is necessary to maintain the landscape at the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve and expanded former Medano Zapata Ranch area, dunes staff and contractors reported during a Wednesday evening meeting concerning the proposed management plan.

Another public meeting will be held tonight (Thursday, May 10) from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Baca National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, 69812 County Road T, Crestone. Comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Ungulate Management Plan are accepted through May 31.

Chief of Resource Management Fred Bunch explained that this plan was a consequence of the 2000 park expansion and also necessary for management of the bison population that the park service will acquire when the purchase of the Medano Ranch from The Nature Conservancy is completed, probably by the end of this year.

Although the park has several ungulates (hooved animals), the two primarily addressed in the proposed plan are elk and bison.

“We have to be very cautious and good stewards of the land and land managers,” Bunch said Wednesday evening. “We are in the landscape business so we want a healthy national park.”

The goal of the park, which the ungulate plan will help accomplish, is to move away from impacts on the landscape, Bunch explained.

Currently there are 5,600 elk in the dunes and surrounding area, and particularly during hunting season, they move back into the park area. The park service’s goal is to distribute them and keep them moving without causing problems with area agricultural producers. Elk tend to go everywhere, Bunch said. For example, among a 65-cow elk radio collar sampling, some elk stayed very near the park while others traveled as far away as Tres Piedres.

As far as the bison herd, Bunch explained that Hisa Ota brought bison to the ranch in the late 1980’s. He later sold the ranch to The Nature Conservancy. The bison have been a livestock operation in the past, but when the park service acquires the ranch, its goal would be to present a herd that is more in line with a national park and could become a source of bison for other locations. The plan calls for less bison and different distribution, more in a free-ranging situation, Bunch explained.

He added that bison would also be a tourist draw for the park.

Bunch described the alternatives that were considered regarding the elk and bison. One alternative would be “no action.” In this alternative, no changes would be made to manage the elk, and once the park service acquired the Medano Ranch, the bison would have to be removed. The second alternative also calls for removing the bison and would involve active elk management.

The third alternative is the one preferred, and the fourth alternative would involve active elk management and initial removal of the bison with bison brought back at a later time.

In the preferred alternative, Bunch explained that elk would be dispersed aggressively through lethal and non-lethal means, and in places where hunting is not allowed (hunting is not allowed in the park) there would be a number of elk harvested, up to 200 a year.

In the preferred alternative, bison would still be in the picture but not as many and perhaps not the same type of bison. The bison currently on the ranch are considered livestock and have some bovine in their DNA, Bunch said. There are currently about 1,700 bison on the ranch.

Some of the bison might be relocated, some harvested.

“We want a more diverse landscape in both plants and animals,” Bunch said, “things that are not there now because of the overuse by elk and bison.”

He said if animals were harvested, they would not be wasted. They would be offered to Native American tribes or food banks, for example.

“It’s a key thing that no food is wasted,” he said.

Some elk management alternatives that Bunch said were considered but discarded as not feasible were wolf reintroduction, reproductive control and capture/relocation.

He encouraged public input on the proposed management plan and said comments may be submitted physically at the dunes offices; mailed to the superintendent at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, 11500 Highway 150, Mosca 81146; or online at

Comments must be submitted by May 31. Bunch said a record of decision would ideally be signed by the end of this year.

View the plan at the above website link or at the public libraries in Alamosa, Crestone, Monte Vista, Del Norte and Saguache.

Captions: Duane Mosher, a member of the team that developed the preferred alternative for ungulate management at the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, reviews maps and information with Alamosa resident Don Thompson./Courier photos by Ruth Heide

Chief of Resource Management Fred Bunch explains ungulate management alternatives during a public meeting in Alamosa on Wednesday evening.