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National Elk Refuge addresses chronic wasting disease in management plans

Written by Saige

In January, Montana’s Senate approved Joint Resolution 8, calling for the end of “unnaturally dense clusters” of elk at the Jackson’s National Elk Refuge and western Wyoming feedgrounds, citing concerns for the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD), brucellosis, foot rot and more. 

Though Montana’s House did not address the measure, Wyoming wildlife agencies responded, saying they take an active role in disease management in elk. 

Elk refuge

“Although no one at the elk refuge or in our region has received a letter regarding the resolution, we are aware of its passage,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Region 6 Mountain-Prairies spokesman Ryan Moehring.

National Elk Refuge (NER) operations follow the 2007 Bison and Elk Management Plan (BEMP), based on a 15-year plan within its environmental impact statement. That public process began in 2000. Many comments for and some against continued feeding were submitted. 

FWS plans to increase suitable forage around the refuge and maintain but adjust feeding.

It is now developing a “bison and elk management step-down plan” with new feeding strategies and continued implementation of the 2007 management plan, according to Moehring.

Balance

At NER, where the Jackson elk herd numbers 11,000 and the bison herd about 500 animals, according to Moehring, managers are taking an active approach.

“Wildlife managers continue to measure forage availability, implement herd health testing techniques and monitor herd health,” he said.

Moehring listed accomplishments over the past decade based on the FWS’ 2017 Bison and Elk Management Plan.

Accomplishment include an expanded underground irrigation system in 2010, which has resulted in approximately 1,500 tons of additional forage in a typical year and work worked with Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) to expand hunting opportunities for elk and bison. 

Further, NER expanded public education efforts in an attempt to build understanding of bison and elk management and disease implications. 

“For example, we helped organize and host a CWD forum in Jackson in December 2016,” Moehring said. “We have increased CWD surveillance on the NER.”

“At present, the size of the Jackson Elk Herd is at the overall herd objective set by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) and stated in the BEMP,” he said. “In 2017, there were about 500 bison that wintered on the NER, which is also consistent with the bison objective set in the BEMP.”

Feeding

From Jan. 7 to March 23, 2017, refuge personnel fed wintering elk and bison 3,113 tons of alfalfa pellets. Feeding start dates are flexible based on a range of factors and the goal is to decrease feed when possible, in accordance with the NER BEMP.

“Montana has expressed concerns with feedgrounds for several years,” said Brian Nesvik, WGFD Chief Game Warden, noting that a letter received by WGFD about CWD coincides with Montana discovery of the disease in their state. “There are a lot of unknowns about this disease. I understand their concerns, for sure.”

WGFD confirmed Sublette County’s first case of CWD in April 2017 in a dead mule deer doe found near the Pinedale Airport – making it the 21st of Wyoming’s 23 counties to detect CWD in deer or elk, leaving only Teton and Uinta counties free from discovery of the disease.

Vaccines

Vaccination is the “most efficacious” way to prevent brucellosis in livestock, as opposed to trying to administer a wildlife vaccine across the Greater Yellowstone network, Nesvik said. 

And, WGFD approved its own new CWD surveillance plan last year.

Wyoming tests experimental Level Three wildlife vaccines such as brucellosis and CWD at the WGFD Thorne Williams Wildlife Research Center near Wheatland, including a CWD test that “was far from being perfect,” he said.

“We’ve been concerned about CWD. We’ve been concerned about feedgrounds for a long time. No, this doesn’t bring some kind of new concern about complex problems – we’ve been concerned about these complex problems all along,” Nesvik said.

The experimental CWD vaccine test “didn’t result in a silver bullet, or we’d already be applying it. The Game and Fish Commission had moved it up on its priority list – research, management decisions – the commissioners went down that road a couple of years ago,” Nesvik stated. 

Joy Ufford is editor of the Pinedale Roundup and a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..