BOSQUE DEL APACHE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, N.M.—Wildlife managers are being forced to kill some of the elk that have migrated to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge over the last two decades.

The reason: The animals are decimating the corn crop that feeds the southern New Mexico refuge's migratory birds.

As of Friday, 19 elk have been killed.

State game officials and refuge managers agree the herd needs to be thinned, but there's disagreement on who should kill the elk and when it should be done.

The state Game and Fish Department appears to be honoring a 107-day moratorium that began March 15 to limit the harvesting of pregnant cows, but refuge officials say their employees are continuing to kill elk.

R.J. Kirkpatrick, assistant director of the state Department of Game and Fish, told the Albuquerque Journal (http://bit.ly/Z824I3) that an agreement reached in February allowed "population management hunters"—hunters who help cull wildlife for the agency as needed—to go onto the refuge and shoot some of the elk.

After the hunters killed 11 cow elk during the last two weeks of February, Bosque del Apache officials abruptly ended the project and began allowing their employees to shoot the elk, Kirkpatrick said.

"Our goal was to harvest around 30 or 40 elk" to offset the anticipated birth of that many elk during the May through June calving season, he said.

Charna Lefton, assistant regional director for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Southwest Region, said budget cuts made it difficult to assign refuge staffers to accompany Game and Fish's hunters for more than two weeks. It was a safety requirement both agencies agreed to.

Refuge manager Kevin Cobble said keeping the refuge's 170,000 annual visitors safe is a concern when Game and Fish hunters are shooting elk on the refuge.

Refuge managers have tried other ways to mitigate the damage caused by the elk, including chasing the animals with vehicles and using pyrotechnics, motion lights and rubber bullets to scare them. Nothing has worked.

The elk—which first appeared at refuge in the 1990s—are foraging on corn meant to feed migratory birds, according to a draft Emergency Elk Management Environmental Assessment done for the refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Depredation of corn has resulted in the inability of the refuge to meet the 1.5 million pounds needed to meet the needs of wintering sandhill cranes," the assessment states.

The culling is meant to keep the elk population in check until a long-term solution can be worked out, Kirkpatrick said.

"The controversy lies in whether it's right for (refuge) staff to be in there killing elk without really giving our public hunters a reasonable opportunity to do that instead," he said.

Another issue is the time period in which the elk are harvested. The agreement calls for no elk to be harvested from March 15 through June 30. The moratorium, Kirkpatrick said, is to limit the number of pregnant cows that are killed.

Cobble said the moratorium applies only to Game and Fish hunters.

Harvesting will continue "until it's determined that they are no longer impacting refuge resources," Cobble said.

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Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com