WGFD initiates discussion
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) manages several elk feedgrounds in northwest Wyoming. Over the years, the supplemental winter feeding of elk has grown in complexity. Among the complexities are wildlife diseases, specifically increasing concerns about the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) across the state.
While there are benefits to feeding elk on feedgrounds there are also challenges, which is why WGFD is preparing to develop a plan to guide the long-term – 10 years and beyond – management of feedgrounds.
“Given the growing complexities of feedgrounds, I feel strongly we are at a point where we needed to talk to the public and give all the facts on WGFD’s approach,” said WGFD Director Brian Nesvik, “People may be familiar with feedgrounds as it relates to their interests but don’t know the why behind WGFD qqs2w decisions. This is an educational effort.”
The federal government first fed hay to elk during winter on the present day National Elk Refuge in 1912, primarily to prevent starvation and keep elk out of private haystacks.
In 1929, Wyoming legislation was passed resulting in WGFD being financially liable for elk damage to hay crops, and state-sanctioned winter elk feeding began this same year.
WGFD found it more efficient and less expensive to feed elk in strategic locations to draw them away from private property and livestock feeding operations.
Today, keeping elk away from domestic cattle to reduce the risk of brucellosis transmission has become a primary driver of elk feedgrounds, along with the prevention of private land conflicts, and approximately 20,000 elk are fed on the National Elk Refuge. Additionally, there are 22 WGFD-operated feedgrounds in Teton, Sublette and Lincoln counties.
Wildlife managers and members of the public are increasingly concerned about how feeding concentrates elk during the winter months and how diseases such as CWD could affect herd health, welfare, and population levels over the long term.
WGFD continues to investigate opportunities to reduce elk reliance on supplemental feeding and manages to reduce existing wildlife diseases (i.e. brucellosis) on feedgrounds by dispersing elk more broadly and by shortening feeding seasons when and where possible.
Predators such as gray wolves often depend heavily on elk as prey and can sometimes complicate elk management by displacing elk during winter.
Traditional migratory routes likely once used by elk to leave their summer and fall ranges to native winter ranges are no longer etched into the instinctual behavior of the herds in this part of Wyoming, and many of those traditional routes and winter ranges are now developed.
Seeking public input
To assist future management decisions, WGFD has initiated a multi-phased effort to gather public input. As part of the first phase, WGFD held four public discussions in early December on the many intricacies of elk feedgrounds.
The four virtual meetings were designed to fully inform the public on feedgrounds and the complexities of management, including disease concerns.
While WGFD is collecting thoughts and input from the public about managing elk that attend winter feedgrounds, the department is not considering feedground closures in the short and mid-term and intends to support the western Wyoming practice which has been in place for over 100 years.
Anyone who wants to submit comments on elk feedgrounds is encouraged to watch the recorded meeting posted online at wgfd.wyo.gov if they were unable to attend a live session.
The recorded video features presentations from WGFD including an overview of elk feedgrounds in Wyoming, current wildlife disease concerns, including chronic wasting disease and current brucellosis management on feedgrounds. Also included are short presentations from federal partners on their role in the feeding of elk in western Wyoming.
Written comments are encouraged using the electronic form provided and will be accepted until Jan. 8, 2021. Additionally, written comments may be mailed to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department at 3030 Energy Lane, Casper, WY 82604.
“We’re fortunate to have extremely high interest regarding the future of elk feedgrounds management from the public,” said Scott Edberg, deputy chief of wildlife. “Thoughts from the general public matter. We want anyone interested to have the chance to get involved and share comments.”
For those who were unable to ask questions at a prior live presentation, WGFD is planning to host a supplemental question and answer session beginning at 4 p.m. on Jan. 5, 2021. Attendance information will be available at a later date. Anyone interested in the session should watch the recorded meeting before enrolling.
This series of online meetings and comments is the first in a multi-phased process to develop a long-term elk feedgrounds management plan. Stay up-to-date on the Elk Feedgrounds Public Collaborative Process by visiting wgfd.wyo.gov/Get-Involved/elk-feedgrounds.
This article was written by WGFD Public Information Specialist Mark Gocke. For more information, visit wgfd.wyo.gov.