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WGFD approves amended elk feedground plan

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The public has a wide range of opinions on how – and if – the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) should manage its winter elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming.

They cited healthy big game animals, encroaching chronic wasting disease (CWD), feedground closures and details in the revised Winter Elk Feedground Management Plan.

In the end, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission meeting in Pinedale earlier this month approved “the plan to make a plan” with a couple of changes.

Elk feedgrounds in Wyoming 

Pinedale Region Supervisor John Lund reported on the very healthy Sublette County, Star Valley and Jackson Hole elk herds which are fed every winter for decades, as compared to pronghorn and mule deer which were decimated by disease and starvation early this year.

WGFD uses these 22 state feedgrounds on public and private lands to keep elk from spreading diseases – brucellosis and the growing threat of CWD – and private property damage to rangelands and haystacks. 

The concept of feeding elk that could not migrate out of Jackson Hole in winter began in 1909-10, although conservation groups there have since called for feedground closures.

In 1912, federal funds were allocated to the National Elk Refuge, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still operates in Jackson. In 1929, WGFD became involved in winter feeding and property damages issues.

Earlier in the day, the commission approved the state wildlife agency’s next step of identifying the Sublette Pronghorn Migration Corridor undertaking a more detailed “biological risk assessment” of the corridor segments from Rock Springs to Jackson Hole.

“We’ve heard a lot of important discussions today, and we’ve got one more for you,” Lund told the commission, including Chair Richard Ludvig, Mark Jolovich, Ashlee Lundvall, Ralph Brokaw, Ken Roberts and John Masterson.

Lund was joined by Jackson Wildlife Coordinator Cheyenne Stewart and Regional Wildlife Supervisor Brad Hovinga, who gave commissioners a more detailed review at their January meeting.

When WGFD employees began researching the status of fatal CWD to update its management plans, Lund said, “It was very obvious winter elk feedgrounds needed to be included in the plan.”

The question always comes up, “Why do we feed elk?”

“The goal is to reduce private property damages – for which WGFD provides some compensation. But, the absolute priority is to reduce commingling of disease-carrying elk and cattle during calving season, reduce elk winter kill due to lack of migration and winter forage and reduce competition with other wildlife species on winter ranges,” he said.

Elk survival also provides excellent hunting opportunities.

Phase One of researching and revising the state’s elk feedground management plan began with a group of local biologists, followed by Phase Two in 2021-22 with public and stakeholder engagement.

In 2023, WGFD hosted public meetings, taking significant input of written and online comments. Over the last several months, the team incorporated many comments to come up with its final draft in February, according to Lund. 

The final product, posted on the WGFD website, contained many editorial changes and clarifications, removing redundancies and adding summaries, tables and figures.

Cattle production values were added and sideboards and goals clarified. More information about brucellosis and CWD was added all from public input.

A controversial topic 

Stewart said maintaining elk feedgrounds is complicated and controversial and CWD detection rates are rising across the state and moving toward the feedground system. 

A feedground captive herd mimics the animal’s natural behavior toward high density. However, the CWD prion is known to be long-lasting and unaffected as it passes through an infected animal into the environment.

Elk herds winter on the same ground year after year, Stewart said, and when they migrate off of feedgrounds in the spring, little is known about how the environment is affected.

“We have never studied CWD in a feedground system,” she said. “Finding out how quickly it spreads, to what prevalence and how other cervids are impacted are very specific things we don’t know yet.”

“Many expectations are assumptions based on modeling which shows CWD prevalence will grow quicker among feedground elk than free-ranging elk,” she added. “To just stop feeding shows an immediate population decline with more elk on winter ranges. We’re not proposing we stop feeding. It’s critical to have management direction.”

The final draft lists more than 100 adaptive strategies, including test and slaughter, for each feedground management action plan (FMAP) for each feedground.

Stewart also requested moving feedground quotas for six elk herd units – three in the Pinedale region and three in the Jackson region – away from the commission’s policy. 

Unique herd unit objectives could then be incorporated into each FMAP so an approved plan is adaptable to nuances. Low-density hay feeding and shortened seasons are already in use.

“We will assess strategies at each feedground and implement an appropriate combination of strategies with the public and stakeholders and present the commission with each FMAP for approval,” she noted.

Commissioners said they know they have to start somewhere.

Outfitter comments

Western Wyoming outfitters made short comments and asked about WGFD’s goals.

With seven hunting camps from the Tetons to the Wyoming Range, Outfitter Dustin Childs said he struggled through the final draft and didn’t find the meat and potatoes until page 50.

“We just listened to how the pronghorn and mule deer are doing right now. Elk numbers in Wyoming are as good as ever. These feedgrounds work. They’ve worked for over 100 years,” Child said. “Feedgrounds have persevered and elk have persevered because of the feedgrounds.”

A major concern is the WGFD’s approach to lower elk numbers and moving them to natural winter ranges.

In the Hoback Basin, WGFD operates two elk feedgrounds – the Dell Creek and McNeel feedgrounds. Child also referred to the Horse Creek and Camp Creek feedgrounds in the Hoback Canyon and closer to Jackson.

“I just drove through Bondurant. There’s no forage showing. I read this as a way to not shut feedgrounds down but to reduce the number being fed. My fear is wildlife managers will look at Camp Creek and Horse Creek and say, ‘There are too many elk’ and reduce the quota from 1,200 to 850,” he said.

Child also pointed to auxiliary management – emergency feeding where hunting strategies have been ineffective. 

“If a hunting season is not working, are you going to use aerial gunning – a helicopter and a machine gun?” he asked.

WGFD Director Brian Nesvik said, “Auxiliary management is a new term to address where normal hunting seasons are not working.”

This is used exclusively with private lands, where the owner allows 10 hunters to get licenses and hunt elk damaging property or commingling.

Zach Key, a LaBarge manager who was on the feedground plan committee, said he proposed more feedgrounds to spread elk out over the landscape, which was not included in the final draft.

He asked who would be running this operation in 10, 20 or 50 years and suggested WGFD should revisit its own feedground management every five or six years to incorporate new science.

Other speakers suggested wolf predation could help reduce elk numbers without feedgrounds, and the agency should create a data-driven approach.

Meghann Smith of the Sublette County Conservation District (SCCD) Board brought up another detail, asking the Commission to include local government and local stakeholders when reviewing a FMAP. SCCD Board Chair Coke Landers explained the county wants a seat at the table. Brokaw agreed.

Hovinga made closing comments, saying the final draft “is a long-term work in progress.”

Nesvik also addressed commissioners about CWD and the effects on tourism, outfitting, hunting and ranching.

“It’s a catastrophic disease for cattle. Doing nothing is not an option,” he said.

Commissioners then crafted a motion to accept the final winter elk feedground management plan with changes to include local government, delete its final sentence, move regional herd unit management quotas to the agency and review the overall plan’s effectiveness every five years.

The motion was approved.

Joy Ufford is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments to

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