The Elk Feed Ground Conundrum
by Daryl L. Hunter
Wyoming elk herd and the Grand Tetons
Bull Elk on the National Elk Refuge in
Jackson Hole Wyoming

Wyoming's elk feed grounds are coming under increasing scrutiny because the feed grounds crowd elk into unnaturally small areas which foster conditions that are conducive to the transmission of disease, this is why brucellosis is so common on feed grounds and game farms, and it is only a matter of time before worse diseases invade these feed grounds like Chronic Wasting Disease.

Brucellosis is a contagious and costly disease of grazing animals; it is problematic for game managers because it is transmitted to domestic livestock. Infection of livestock has serious economic consequences for the livestock industry as Brucellosis causes weight loss, loss of young, infertility, lameness and effects milk production, and it is one of the most serious diseases of livestock. The loss of “Brucellosis Free Status” costs a state’s livestock producers millions of dollars annually. Brucellosis is rarely detected in free-ranging elk herds.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) a fatal, neurological disease is another looming threat for Wyoming’s wildlife and livestock industry. The disease has been identified in Wyoming mule deer, white-tailed deer and elk. CWD belongs to the family of diseases known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies a class of disease that includes Mad Cow Disease (BSE). Wildlife biologist Shane Moore has said; Nearly all experts agree that the risk of CWD in the Jackson Hole herd is not a question of if, it is only a question of when it will arrive.” He also said “in my opinion, supplemental feeding in the presence of CWD is our worse nightmare.”

Elk feed grounds have both pros and cons, the pros include; concentrating elk at specific locations to prevent agricultural depredation, prevents starvation, reduces commingling of livestock and elk, reduces elk/vehicle collisions, facilitates vaccination of elk, inventory studies, and stable elk numbers, they reduce competition with other species for crucial winter habitat, and they are popular with much of the public. Feed ground cons include; congregating elk in an artificially small footprint facilitates disease transmission, it costs Game and Fish about1.3 million dollars annually to manage 22 feed grounds not including the National Elk Refuge, this number excludes disease research. Feeding elk can send a message that habitat is not important!

Problems with discontinuation of elk feed grounds include; increased conflicts with highways, fences etc., winter range snow depths that preclude many areas as suitable winter range, increases need for proactive herd management to avoid heavy snow year decimation, heavy snow years will move elk from winter range to available food sources generally haystacks or cattle feed lines increasing elk/livestock interactions increasing damage claims to the Game and Fish and increasing friction with the agricultural community. There currently is not enough winter range to support present herds so it would decrease elk numbers 70-80%, costing about 22 million dollars to the economy of NW. Wyoming.

Cow elk and calf crossing river
This complex problem raises some questions; are sportsman, hunters, outfitters and the general public willing to decrease their elk herd by 80%? Who will be responsible for large-scale die-offs due to starvation? How will elk be vaccinated? What will keep elk from commingling with cattle and causing damage to crops? Can our current winter range support more elk without affecting current deer, bighorn sheep and antelope populations?

Ranchers, hunters and outfitters largely oppose closing feed grounds, because they discourage elk from competing with livestock for forage, help keep them out of hay storage and help elk survive harsh winters and help keep up elk populations. Outfitter/rancher Glenn Taylor says; Fear is a great motivator and I think it's rude and disrespectful to our ancestors who worked hard to establish what we have here today, because the elk herd, which is famous is what brings people to Jackson Hole. If we eliminate that elk herd on that Refuge, it's going to eliminate a lot of other economic values to our valley.

Black wolf hunting elk

Environmentalists say that closing some of the feed grounds would help fight brucellosis and reduce the threat of CWD by dispersing elk over wider areas. Franz Camenzind of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance has said; “If we don't start cutting this down, and taking these animals off the feed ground, I'd say that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming Game and Fish, and Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce better start advertising this as the largest elk herd on a feedlot, and the most manipulated, tested, and inoculated herd in the world. It is no longer a wild herd and if we want to achieve some kind of wilderness back in this area, I think we have to take them off the feedlots.”

Historically, a portion of the Jackson elk herd wintered in Jackson Hole but many migrated to the Green River and Wind River basins to the south and east, and west to the Snake River basin of eastern Idaho. It has been speculated that thousands of elk once migrated from Jackson to the Wyoming’s Red Desert. When the feeding programs started the elk quickly adapted to the shorter migration. Research conducted for an environmental impact study for the National Elk Refuge studied ways to reintroduce historic migration routes to Jackson Hole’s elk.

When I first heard that environmentalists were pushing for closure of the elk feeding programs of Wyoming my first thought was the wolf predation in the Gros Ventre feed grounds were going to give their wolf a public relations black eye so I speculated the environmentalists wanted to disperse the elk so wolf depredation wouldn’t be so obvious. Upon further investigation I found that CWD was a real fear of biologists and scientists and it is imperative that a solution be reached. It is a pity that with all the critical issues that face the Greater Yellowstone Eco-system that many of us automatically think that if it came from the mouth of an environmentalist that it is another agenda driven convoluted distortion of fact or lie. In this case maybe it isn't!


Elk - Images by Daryl Hunter
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