The activist vision for western Wyoming: Few cattle, free-ranging elk, human restrictions
Environmental advocates commenting on a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) proposal to reauthorize the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s (WGFD) continued use of two elk feedgrounds located on National Forest lands are using the opportunity to propose systematic change in western Wyoming.
Their vision eliminates all elk feedgrounds in favor of elk free ranging in the winter across broad swathes of Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties; with elk-proof fences erected around small winter feedlots for cattle which remain in the region and restrictions on human use of public lands during the winter.
The federal land management agency would declare its authority to protect predators on federal land and would rely on wolves to control disease in wildlife populations. Public land cattle grazing would be reduced or eliminated, and the USFS would consider having livestock producers switch from running cow/calf operations to steers, or ship livestock out of the region for the winter and spring seasons.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) is preparing a draft environmental impact statement for reauthorizing use of two elk feedgrounds in western Wyoming’s Sublette and Lincoln counties. The analysis will consider the impacts of the WGFD’s application to continue feeding elk at the Dell Creek Feedground near Bondurant and the Forest Park Feedground east of Alpine.
Although the BTNF’s stated purpose of the analysis is to analyze the proposal to assure WGFD is “managing elk in a manner allowing the health of the land to be sustained and to meet the goals and objectives” of the forest plan, environmental activists want to stretch the scope of the analysis to encompass a much broader vision.
Many of the comment letters submitted by environmental groups cited concerns for the spread of chronic wasting disease as justification for closing the feedgrounds, while promoting the presence of wolves for disease control. The letters also cited other disease transmission risks, but respondents expressed little concern for the transmission of brucellosis to area cattle herds should the closures result in elk commingling with wintering cattle herds.
A joint letter submitted by Wyoming Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Western Watersheds Project, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Yellowstone to Uintas Connection and Buffalo Roam Tours proposed immediate closure of the Forest Park Feedground, phasing out feeding at Dell Creek within three years and starting the process of phasing out all feedgrounds on USFS lands. This “Sierra Club” letter took note of the high percentage of federal lands in western Wyoming, combined with its sparse human population to suggest the agency “allow elk to naturally free-range among their natural, healthier seasonal habitats throughout the region.”
To maintain separation between brucellosis-infected elk and area cattle, the Sierra Club proposed alternatives such as “fence in the livestock with elk proof fences or construct elk-proof fences to prevent elk from entering into private land where vulnerable livestock are pastured and allow elk to free range.” The letter advised, “Another way to separate elk from livestock is to ship the livestock to winter elsewhere.”
A comment letter penned by John Carter of Bondurant of the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, jointly with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council, advocated the closure of all feedgrounds in western Wyoming. Carter, who also serves on the advisory board for the anti-grazing group Western Watersheds Project, took aim at livestock grazing in Sublette County, asking, “Why should the public have to lose its wildlife so a handful of livestock permittees can graze their cattle at great public cost? … There is a 100-year history of taxpayer subsidized feeding of elk to essentially protect livestock producers’ stored hay and reduce mixing of elk and cattle.”
Carter also suggested area landowners weren’t leaving enough forage for wildlife on their private lands, stating, “This comes down to an ethical issue in our mind. Not everything must be for profit.”
He suggested the BTNF eliminate hunting and trapping of predators and scavengers within the national forest boundaries, writing, “We remind the USFS it has primacy over management on public lands and is a cooperating agency with the state of Wyoming, not its servant.”
In addition, Carter said national forest officials should “get engaged with the state, Bureau of Land Management and private landowners to provide forage and migration for these animals on lands managed by other entities.”
A joint letter from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the National Wildlife Federation suggested WGFD take action to reduce the number of elk in the Dell Creek area, noting, “Simply reauthorizing the feedground to allow more elk which are above objectives is not a viable solution.” Potential solutions to separate elk from cattle “include habitat leasing programs, elk occupancy agreements with landowners, shifts in elk management and seasonal closures to secure transitional and crucial winter range on USFS lands. In addition, the USFS should consider opportunities to create forage reserves or accept voluntary permit waivers on grazing allotments adjacent to the Dell Creek Feedground, providing additional forage for wintering elk and decreasing the need for supplemental feed.”
Jackson Hole’s Lloyd Dorsey, also a Western Watersheds Project advisory board member, wrote, “Shockingly, contrary to the recommendations of virtually all wildlife scientists and abetted by the BTNF, the WGFD has persisted for decades in this travesty by holding thousands of elk on small, disease-infested plots of land in three of Wyoming’s 23 counties during winter months, thus knowingly maintaining high levels of disease in those herds.”
Dorsey added, “Rather than piecemeal an analysis of only one or a few elk feedgrounds, the BTNF should examine the entire elk feedground program as a whole, examine its impacts on the BTNF and surrounding lands and wildlife and should eliminate the adverse impacts by helping eliminate feedgrounds.”
Dorsey demanded, “The BTNF must stop the indiscriminate recreational and sport killing of coyotes, foxes and other scavengers on USFS lands.”
Dorsey also pointed out the success rate for elk hunters in Wyoming is double the rate of neighboring states.
“Wyoming shouldn’t be stockpiling excess elk to appease special interests,” he wrote. “The methods are well known, the tools are at hand, elk are abundant and there is no reason for delaying ending elk feedgrounds.”
“Protecting extensive, connected habitats, managing free-ranging elk herds and conserving predators can improve the health of the currently sick elk herds, at high risk and confined on small feedgrounds months at a time,” Dorsey wrote. “Predators can, if conserved in abundance, steward the game herds, remove infected individuals and help ensure healthy wildlife over the long term. Elk feedgrounds are an error of wildlife management whose time has passed.”
Organizations supporting continued use of the elk feedground system have a vastly different view than the environmental activists. Brandon Jensen of the Budd-Falen Law Offices penned a letter for the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and Safari Club International, noting without elk feedgrounds, “elk in the area would be forced to migrate further from their summer range and onto private lands – overburdening feed sources on local ranches, raising the risk of disease transmission between livestock and wildlife and increasing the danger to both elk and humans on public roadways. These harmful interactions would all result in a decline in the local elk population.”
Wyoming Department of Agriculture Director Doug Miyamoto wrote his agency supports continuing the long-term use of both feedgrounds to reduce the transmission of brucellosis to cattle, and to reduce the risk of elk damage to adjacent properties while reducing the costs associated with damage control efforts.
Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) Executive Vice President Jim Magagna noted the elk feedground program was “critical to the very survival of the cattle industry in northwestern Wyoming. Lacking the ability to maintain these feedgrounds, WGFD would have been forced to drastically reduce the elk populations in this area. Should they have failed to do so, there would no longer be a viable cattle industry in northwestern Wyoming. The unavoidable outcome would have been more subdivision of private lands resulting in less open space for wildlife, recreation and general public enjoyment.”
Magagna said WSGA “looks forward to the day when animal health advancements and elk management tools will combine to make it no longer necessary to maintain these elk feedgrounds. This day has not yet arrived.”
Cat Urbigkit is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.