Special elk hunt starts Saturday in Custer State Park

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CUSTER STATE PARK, S.D. (KOTA TV) A special hunt kicks off this weekend in Custer State Park where 40 extra tags were issued for antlerless elk. The goal of the hunt, say wildlife managers, is twofold: ease overcrowding and learn more about a deadly infection.

Elk have been congregating in the southern reaches of the park and straining resources.

"We've got roughly two hundred head of elk that are in that pasture," said Game, Fish & Parks Senior Wildlife Biologist Chad Lehman. "And we're trying to lower the density for range purposes. We also have a bison herd and we've got a lot of elk that are in that pasture that are competing with bison and other animals for range down there."

So game officials decided to issue some extra tags to increase the number of elk harvested. The hunts will be scheduled from this Saturday through Jan. 21 with only ten hunters in the field at a time.

"The first objective is to lower the density of elk on the southern portion of Custer State Park primarily in our R&D Pasture Unit boundary," said Lehman, "which is roughly a five thousand acre pasture that borders Wind Cave National Park."

But the extra hunting season is also driven have another concern: a deadly disease afflicting the herd and each elk harvested must be tested by Game, Fish and Parks officials.

"And the second primary reason is for chronic wasting disease concerns," Lehman added. "Wind Cave National Park has just come out with some data that suggests the rate of chronic wasting disease could be 14 to 16 percent and we have elk in our pasture that came out of Wind Cave National Park and we're concerned about the high prevalence of disease in that elk herd."

Is 16 percent a disconcerting rate?

"That's extremely high," said Lehman. "If you have 13 percent mortality from chronic wasting disease, that's a declining elk herd."

All of the tags for the special hunt have been given out. The deadline for applying for the hunt passed in earlier this month.