DUBOIS, Wyo. -- Ranger Bob Jackson has been catching poachers for 21 years, but he's at a loss to combat the latest threat to Yellowstone National Park's wildlife.
Jackson says hunters and guides just outside the park's southern boundary, and therefore outside his jurisdiction, are illegally salting the ground to lure trophy elk out of the park so the animals can be hunted.
Hunters have used a number of salting methods over the decades to attract elk, including placing blocks of salt in the forest or pouring rock salt on the ground. Elk lick the salted earth, creating pits up to 20 feet in diameter and several feet deep.
In 1990, the Forest Service outlawed salting in federal wilderness areas. But the 586,000-acre Teton Wilderness, which abuts Yellowstone's southern boundary, is a prime hunting area where hunters pay outfitters several thousand dollars each for the chance to bag a trophy bull elk. Outfitting, the business of taking hunters into the outback, thrives in remote areas of the West, including the Teton Wilderness.
No one has ever been caught salting in the area just outside Yellowstone, but Jackson said he has seen two pits created over the past year. About 25 salt pits of varying sizes dot the park's roughly 18-mile southern boundary, according to Eric Sandeno, manager of the Teton Wilderness.
Some outfitters and game wardens have said that Jackson is exaggerating the problem. But he said the discovery of new pits affirms his belief that the lucrative business of outfitting will keep salt baiting alive until forest managers act.
The Forest Service, which has jurisdiction, is considering cleansing the pits, although packing out the salted earth could be difficult. The area, miles from the nearest road, is accessible only by foot and horseback.
Outfitting is big business near Yellowstone. About 3,000 hunters frequent the wilderness every year near the park's southern border, according to the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish. On the Internet, some outfitters near Yellowstone boast that 90 percent of their hunters bag elk.
While federal law bans salting in wilderness areas, there is no law in Wyoming against it. At least 16 other states have banned salt baiting.
Harold Turner, owner of Triangle X outfitters, said he used to salt the ground along the park's southern boundary before it was illegal. Thirty years ago when there were not many elk in the region, the salting "made a big difference," he said.
Mark Marschall, a Yellowstone ranger, said catching salters is not easy. Only the act of dumping salt is illegal; it is not illegal to hunt at the salt pits.
"Someone could go out over the course of the summer and fall to dump salt, and unless someone is there witnessing that, it's pretty hard to catch," he said.
While salt baiting disturbs Jackson for ethical reasons, he also worries about the threat to grizzly bears that feed on elk carcasses.
Hunters often leave elk meat behind because it is too difficult to pack out of the remote area. That attracts bears and raises the risk that the threatened species may be shot by hunters, mostly acting in self-defense when a bear charges them.
Recently three grizzly bears were shot in the Teton Wilderness. Authorities are investigating.
Some have said salting can help cull a growing elk population. But Game Warden Tim Fagan said salting has had little effect on elk numbers.
"Our elk numbers have done nothing but increase in the past 10 years," he said. "There's minimal numbers of elk ever killed over salt. And salting has never affected the population. Never even close."
On the Net:
Yellowstone National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yell
Wyoming Game and Fish Department: http://gf.state.wy.us
Wyoming Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides: http://outfitte.state.wy.us/index.html
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