Public meeting held to discuss elk feedground management
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) released its draft plan to revise the elk feeding program in June.
Since 2020, WGFD and a group of public stakeholders have been discussing possible revisions to Wyoming’s current elk feeding programs.
The agency held a series of public meetings in Jackson, Pinedale and Afton. On July 25, they held a webinar to update the public on the proposed changes, allowing the public to interact with members of WGFD’s steering team, while discussing details of the proposed elk feedgrounds plan.
The draft plan, “Elk Feedgrounds: A Challenge We Can Take On,” was designed to guide the department’s overall approach to elk management concerning elk feedgrounds in Wyoming.
Elk feedground history
Elk have been utilizing feedgrounds in Northwest Wyoming since they were established in 1912. During this time, the federal government fed hay to elk during winter months on the present-day National Elk Refuge (NER), primarily to prevent starvation and keep elk out of private haystacks.
State-sanctioned winter elk feeding began in 1929, the same year Wyoming legislation passed, placing the department financially liable for elk damage to hay crops.
The feeding program has since grown to thousands of elk being fed each year on the 22 WGFD-operated feedgrounds in Teton, Sublette and Lincoln counties, as well as the NER.
The NER winter elk feeding program is currently managed by the 2019 Bison and Elk Management Step-Down Plan, a structured framework for reducing the reliance of elk and bison on supplemental feeding over a five-year period.
Moving to the future, slow and steady
According to WGFD, “The plan’s overall goal is to reduce elk’s reliance on feedgrounds, while increasing opportunities for elk to winter away from feedgrounds in an effort to decrease disease transmission amongst the elk.”
Conservation groups are challenging the feedgrounds and are calling for an abrupt end to the feeding program. However, during the webinar, WGFD steering members stress ending the program abruptly will not work in Wyoming.
“Managing elk through the feedgrounds has been the policy in Wyoming for nearly a century, and simply halting the program would be impractical and could have devastating side effects,” states WGFD Jackson Region Wildlife Supervisor Brad Hovinga.
Hovinga notes if changes do occur, they must happen over time, systematically and with the support of all stakeholders, including hunters, outfitters and ranchers.
“Over the years, the supplemental winter feeding of elk has grown in complexity. Among the complexities are wildlife diseases spreading across Wyoming,” states the steering team. “While there are benefits to feeding elk on feedgrounds, there are also challenges, which is why the department is preparing to develop a long-term plan to guide management of feedgrounds.”
Concerns from local ranchers have also been expressed, stating the elimination of elk feedgrounds will impact them immensely because elk will begin raiding their haystacks and damaging fences, all while spreading disease to livestock.
A particular concern to local ranchers is brucellosis, which can spread from elk to cattle, causing cows to abort their calves spontaneously. Sustaining a brucellosis-free status is crucial for producers transporting and marketing Wyoming beef across state lines.
One-size does not fit all
John Lund, WGFD Pinedale regional wildlife supervisor, expresses the importance of maintaining public support as the draft is created and notes WGFD wants to ensure an adaptable long-term plan to limit hardship to ranchers.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Lund states. “Every single feedground is different, with different issues.”
A strong stance was represented by the WGFD steering committee during the public meetings, stating the department is taking into consideration all concerns and wants to take a slow and steady approach to developing a strategy for the future of Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds.
The WGFD steering team informed public meetings attendees they had developed a comment form with a few questions for individuals to respond to.
The comment period is open through Sept. 10, but they encourage individuals to submit comments before this deadline.
The steering team will revise the draft plan based on comments received, then present a final Wyoming Elk Feedgrounds Management Plan for discussion and approval by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission at their Nov. 14-15 meeting in Cody.
Melissa Anderson is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.