Elk Feedgrounds: A Challenge We Can Take On
By Brian Nesvik, Wyoming Game and Fish Department
Published on Jan. 4, 2020
For wildlife, December cold and snow are only the beginning of the long Wyoming winter. Elk are already gathering on their winter range as you read this. In the northwest part of the state, for some elk, this means settling on one of 23 elk feedgrounds – something their herds have been doing for more than a century.
But this winter, discussions regarding the future of the feedgrounds are intensifying on both sides of what has become a contentious issue.
The first feedgrounds, including the National Elk Refuge, were established in the early 1900s to address the needs of wintering elk, primarily to prevent starvation and keep elk out of haystacks. While this practice has continued, keeping elk away from cattle where they can transmit brucellosis has become the primary driver.
Important to many hunters is that without feedgrounds, there would be less elk available to pursue each fall, and to wildlife watchers, elk feedgrounds, particularly the National Elk Refuge, provide great viewing opportunities all year.
Today, approximately 20,000 elk are fed on the National Elk Refuge and 22 Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) operated feedgrounds in Teton, Sublette and Lincoln counties.
On the other side of the issue, there are people who are critical of elk feeding because it artificially concentrates elk during the winter months. With wildlife diseases like chronic wasting disease (CWD) prevalent in many Wyoming deer and elk herds, some members of the public are increasingly concerned about how feeding concentrates elk during the winter months and could affect CWD transmission and herd health over the long term.
WGFD shares some of these concerns and has addressed them by implementing new practices like dispersing elk more broadly and by shortening feeding seasons. Additionally, I have asked department wildlife managers to look for opportunities to reduce elk reliance on supplemental feeding.
To complicate the matter, federal land managers have differing elk management objectives based on their missions. Multiple land managers are involved with the same elk herd in the same general area and they often have goals or direction from the courts that don’t coincide.
Based on pending litigation and past court decisions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is exploring actions to reduce the number of elk on the National Elk Refuge to 5,000.
For similar reasons, the U.S. Forest Service desires to reduce the number of feedground permits they issue. Grand Teton National Park wishes to move away from their defacto hunt called the Elk Reduction Program. Actions in one federal jurisdiction conflict with goals in another and often influence elk distribution on and off feedgrounds.
Predators like gray wolves, whose existence relies heavily on elk as prey, further complicates the issue by displacing elk from native winter ranges onto feedgrounds.
Last, traditional migratory routes once used by elk to leave their summer and fall ranges in the winter are no longer etched in the instinctual behavior of the elk herds in this part of the state. Those areas are, in part, modern residential developments.
Humans and wildlife are competing for the same wildlife resources, and WGFD must manage a balance between both. The efforts of the agency affect more than hunters. Our agriculture industry relies on and works with WGFD to responsibly manage elk in a way that prevents disease transmission to livestock.
Our tourism-based industries rely on healthy and abundant elk populations for the benefit of those who want to see elk and for those wildlife species that prey on them.
I firmly believe continuing to operate elk feedgrounds in northwest Wyoming is the right course, at least for the short and midterm. Elk in northwest Wyoming are important to the people of our state and nation.
Stopping feedground operations could reduce elk populations in northwest Wyoming by as much as 60 to 80 percent, which is not in the best interest of a strong and healthy wildlife resource and Wyoming’s citizens.
I feel strongly that Wyoming has been, and will continue to be, a leader in wildlife management. Supplemental elk feeding creates challenges we can mitigate. It will take patience, consideration of the best science and agile decision makers.
It will take teamwork and consideration for all interests with a stake in wildlife management in northwest Wyoming. We have a strong track record in our state of using all of these skills to solve tough problems for the betterment of wildlife, and I believe this one is no different.
Brian Nesvik is the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. To contact WGFD, visit wgfd.wyo.gov.