Winter feeding: Judge: Dell Creek feed ground permit expired
Sublette County – The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s (WGFD) permit to feed tons of hay in the upcoming winter season to wild elk wintering around the Del Creek feedground in Bondurant was in jeopardy due to WGFD oversight and a Sept 21. Court decision.
However, in a Oct. 4 press release WGFD stated a plan to continue a process to gather input on feedground management plans while continuing operations for this year.
The Dell Creek feedground is one of two WGFD winter elk feedgrounds in Sublette County’s Hoback Basin. The other is the McNeel feedground on private property WGFD leases near the Hoback River.
The Dell Creek feedground, however, is on U.S Forest Service (USFS) land and its use must be permitted and analyzed for environmental impacts.
Both feedgrounds are located near cattle ranches and private homes with livestock. Before winter feeding begins and until elk consume available forage or too much snow falls, herds often move into stockpiled hay and alfalfa.
Dell Creek feedground
Wyoming’s U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal issued her ruling Sept. 21 in the 2020 civil complaint filed by Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and Gallatin Wildlife Association.
The coalition argued the USFS and WGFD agreements at Dell Creek feedground in Sublette County, Forest Park in Lincoln County and Alkali in Teton County should not be allowed to continue with current permits without further environmental analysis.
They also highlighted gathered elk herds are potential pathways to spread dreaded chronic wasting disease (CWD). The disease has not been found in the Hoback Basin herd, but the coalition argued it was only a matter of time.
In her decision, Freudenthal examined the USFS administrative record and ruled WGFD did not properly request continued use at the Dell Creek location between 2016 and now.
Although the USFS referenced the continued use by WGFD, the state wildlife agency did not officially request its continued use beyond that one year.
“The one-year [special use permit BPY100217] for Dell Creek feedgrounds expired by its terms notwithstanding USFS’s acknowledgement to the contrary,” Freundenthal concluded.
Permits, CWD present complications
Freudenthal examined arguments that the three feedgrounds are not properly permitted because USFS decisions are faulty and lack proper environmental analyses for the sites.
“As additional background, this court previously vacated and remanded the USFS’s decision to reauthorize feedground activities at Alkali Creek based on its failure under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to consider the science regarding CWD risk, transmission and mitigation,” she wrote. “The instant case not only concerns the Alkali Creek feedground once again, but also challenges the continuation of supplemental feeding at the Forest Park and Dell Creek feedgrounds.”
Freudenthal continued, “More specifically, the petition challenges: (1) the approval of the WGFD Commission’s request to resume feeding operations at Alkali Creek without first conducting the environmental analysis previously ordered by this Court; and (2) the agency’s indefinite authorization of artificial feeding at Dell Creek and Forest Park feedgrounds without issuing the requisite special use permit under the USFS regulations or conducting any environmental analysis under NEPA.”
Freudenthal agreed with the coalition that environmental analyses were lacking for effects of continued winter elk feeding in light of CWD, a disease spread by prions, unnatural proteins that can pass through an animal and remain viable years later in soil and forage.
“While there were no CWD detections at Forest Park, Dell Creek or Alkali Creek to date, there is no dispute that ‘congregating elk at very high densities at feedgrounds is likely to increase the spread of disease because of an increased number and rate of potential infectious contacts with infected individuals and an infected environment,’” she wrote, adding CWD “surrounds the feedgrounds at issue in this case.”
Forest Park and Alkali feedgrounds
In the Sept. 21 ruling, Freudenthal stated the WGFD Commission properly applied for a permit for the Forest Park feedground. The feedground can operate under its current permit because the USFS has not made “a final agency decision” for her to rule for or against, she wrote.
In 2018, Freudenthal had remanded the Alkali Creek permit for emergency feeding only to the USFS, requiring it to examine impacts of its permits for environmental assessments.
During the more recent suit, Freudenthal allowed a stay so both sides could negotiate. Both returned with briefs to support oral arguments in July.
Freudenthal remanded WGFD emergency feeding permit at Alkali to the USFS. Bridger-Teton National Forest public information officer Mary Cernicek said, “Department of Justice attorneys were examining the order.”
Passed earlier this year, House Rep. Albert Sommers’ House Bill 101 addresses the process for an elk feedground’s closure – the issue would come to the Joint Wildlife, Recreation ETC Committee, a report required as well as the governor’s signature.
Joy Ufford is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.