Elk feedgrounds Wyoming, Refuge likely won’t quit feeding elk soon
Wyoming’s tradition of wintertime elk feeding – including at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson – coupled with Montanans’ urgent fears of the fatal chronic wasting disease (CWD) decimating its deer, moose and elk led to a request from Wyoming’s neighbor to the north to change its ways.
In November, hunters south of Billings, Mont. took two infected mule deer shortly after Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks released its draft CWD surveillance plan with hopes of limiting the fatal neurological disease. It is not yet known how CWD is transmitted – much less how to stop it – but researchers know it is caused by small, inorganic, indestructible mutated proteins called “prions.”
Although the feedground issue is argued from every angle, another winter is underway. Elk are gathered at the refuge and contracted feeders distribute hay at many Wyoming Game and Fish feedgrounds. Thirteen of 22 state feedgrounds are in Sublette County.
Montana is sending clear messages to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to close down elk feedgrounds and the elk refuge to prevent the “catastrophic” spread of CWD, fatal to deer but not yet devastating to elk.
In February 2017, the Montana Senate unanimously approved Joint Resolution No. 8, calling for the end of “unnaturally dense clusters” of elk at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson and western Wyoming’s feedgrounds. The Montana House did not address it.
The resolution stated that feedgrounds create “artificially high populations of elk,” which all parties agree could help transmit wildlife diseases, including brucellosis and CWD.
Copies of the Senate resolution were to be sent to the Secretary of the Interior, FWS director, National Elk Refuge (NER) manager, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) director and Gov. Matt Mead.
Montana wildlife commission
On Dec. 7, Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission President Dan Vermillion sent a letter to Wyoming Game and Fish Commission President Keith Culver.
“We respect the fact that how Wyoming manages its affairs is up to Wyoming,” wrote Vermillion. “However, Montana’s ability to combat CWD will depend on decisions Wyoming makes about its wildlife management. Over the long-term, the feedgrounds make your wildlife populations less healthy, less stable and much more vulnerable to a catastrophic disease event.”
Culver acknowledged each commissioner received the letter, adding, “There are no plans at this time to put this topic on our meeting agenda.”
He invited the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to attend a Wyoming meeting “to discuss their concerns” but has not heard back, he said.
“Wyoming and Montana have a history of working closely together on wildlife issues for many decades,” Culver said. “We value their partnership and cooperation and are looking forward to meeting with them.”
Finding a balance
“Just like anything we deal with in our state where we have multiple different needs and multiple different interests, everything has to be considered,” WGFD Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik said of feeding elk. “We, in our state, recognize the fact our partnership with livestock is extremely important to both wildlife and the livestock industry.”
Agriculture owns much of the private land, and he said, “It’s very interconnected. The very narrow approach is not in wildlife’s best interests.”
“But we have not documented CWD on any feedgrounds. I struggle to find the link between our feedgrounds and CWD in the state of Montana,” Nesvik said, adding that free-ranging elk also get and spread diseases.
Culver commended WGFD employees for always adapting their feeding programs.
“WGFD has done a good job of trying to minimize crowding of elk while still minimizing co-mingling with livestock,” he said, calling the department “proactive.”
“The recommendation to begin supplemental feeding in a given year is based on criteria that are mutually agreed upon between the NER and WGFD,” Moehring explained. “These criteria state that when average available forage declines to 300 pounds per acre at key index sites, supplemental feeding is typically warranted, but feeding start dates can also be influenced by elk behavior or other factors.”
“NER and WGFD staff have begun forage monitoring for the winter and will jointly develop a recommendation for when to begin feeding. Over the course of the past 10 years, feeding has typically begun in late January,” he added.
Faced with the question of whether supplemental feed could be eliminated at NER, Moehrin said, “Feeding could be eliminated if it were no longer needed, such as if the overall Jackson elk herd and NER wintering herd objectives are met, if there is sufficient natural forage to sustain them and if public support is maintained,” Moehring said.
In developing the 2017 Bison and Elk Management Plan (BEMP) at NER, not feeding at NER was a very unpopular option with the public.
“A decision to end feeding altogether outside of the context of reaching objectives would likely require additional National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) work because that is not a stated goal of the BEMP,” Moehring added.
FWS and refuge officials, coordinating with WGFD and Grand Teton National Park, are in the process of drafting its “step-down plan” for supplemental feeding as called for in the 2007 BEMP, according to Moehring.
“It is the ‘structured framework for progressively transitioning from intensive supplemental winter feeding’ that is called for in the BEMP,” he said. “The plan identifies methods for incrementally reducing the number of ‘elk-fed days,’ while carefully monitoring winter mortality and limiting off-refuge wildlife conflicts.”
The step-down plan is still in the works as a draft and has not yet been released. As of Jan. 11, supplemental feeding had not started at the National Elk Refuge.
Joy Ufford is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and journalist for the Pinedale Roundup and Sublette Examiner. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.