LONGMONT - For the first time, Boulder County will let people hunt on Rabbit Mountain Open Space in Longmont to help control the elk population.
Twenty-five elk inhabited Rabbit Mountain 10 years ago. Starting 2015, the population drastically spiked and now there are approximately 350 elk there, wildlife officials say.
The impact felt by the growth has been difficult to sustain, according to Boulder County Parks & Open Space Ranger Erin Hartnett.
"The elk have just been taking over and we really want to protect that area," she says.
As of Tuesday, Boulder County commissioners approved a measure that'll allow limited elk hunting in a 500-acre section of the mountain. Limited hunting will begin the day after Labor Day (Sept. 5, 2017) and end Jan. 31, 2018. Rabbit Mountain will be closed Monday through Wednesday for hunters.
Unlike with other herds of elk, rangers are facing a unique situation on Rabbit Mountain.
"They just stay right here at Rabbit Mountain year round," Hartnett says. "They've been able to reproduce and they don't have any pressures from hunting."
Elk naturally migrate to the high country in the summer and may venture to lower elevations in the winter, according to experts.
The group of elk on Rabbit Mountain have found a way to avoid migrating, which has resulted in the significant population growth.
Limited hunting isn't really about population control, Hartnett says. "We're really just trying to get the elk to disperse and go back to their natural pattern."
The decision to allow hunting had some opposition, mainly from people who would like wildlife officials to consider alternatives.
Runner Lindsey Beddard understands why limited hunting needs to happen but wishes there was another option.
"It's shooting an animal, so it's kind of hard for me to be okay with that. Looking into something else would be better than jumping right to hunting," she says.
Hartnett says wildlife officials considered a number of alternatives and even implemented hazing efforts, which did not work. There was even talk of offering elk birth control.
People with farms and property on Rabbit Mountain say the elk are eating their crops and ruining their landscape. Open Space officials say the animals are also causing damage to vegetation, which is valuable for research.
"It's one of the most biologically diverse areas in Boulder County that we have," Hartnett says.
Boulder County Commissioners approved a 3-year limited hunting plan that they will re-evaluate after the first year.
Rangers encourage Boulder County residents to weigh in because they're still considering alternatives for the future.