Elk Feedground Closure Arises Again
File photo: Elk in a capture facility on an elk feedground in Sublette County.
Sublette County Representative and Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers (House District 20) has filed legislation that would authorize permanent closure of a Wyoming Game & Fish (WG&F) Department elk feedground only upon an order of Wyoming’s governor. The bill is HB101, and it has been referred to the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee.
The bill would require the WG&F Commission to recommend any such closures to the governor while soliciting input from the Wyoming Livestock Board on such an action. The Livestock Board would make its recommendation directly to the governor, but the WG&F Commission and Livestock Board would hold a public meeting to hear from people who would be directly impacted by the proposed closure.
The bill would also authorize WG&F to contract or lease private or state lands to relocate elk feedgrounds and would authorize the governor to temporarily close elk feedgrounds under emergency circumstances not to exceed six months.
Co-sponsors of the bill include Representatives Flitner, Sweeney, and Winter, and Senators Baldwin, Driskill, and Hicks.
Sommers’s bill has generated considerable attention, with advocates for the closure of feedgrounds claiming that the bill reduces what should be a scientific decision down to a political one. Advocates often cite the threat posed by chronic wasting disease as justification for closing the elk feedgrounds. But the issues surrounding management of elk feedgrounds aren’t that simple. Management of elk feedgrounds is complicated by both scientific and policy issues, with impacts to elk, cattle, and human health, as well as economic impacts to both the hunting and livestock industries.
Elk feedgrounds were started to keep elk from starving, but the feedgrounds are now used to not only reduce starvation, but to prevent conflict with nearby livestock operations (including reducing the risk of transmission of brucellosis from elk to cattle), and Wyoming hunters have become accustomed to the high elk numbers made possible because of the feeding program. Many of the feedgrounds are located in the foothills along mountain ranges, serving to hold wintering elk away from cattle feedlines on private property in the lower country.
How We Got Here
Many of western Wyoming’s 23 elk feedgrounds were started in the 1940s to prevent damage to stored livestock feed, although some feedgrounds were founded even earlier to prevent large-scale elk die offs due to severe winter conditions.
Today, state officials manage 22 elk feedgrounds, while federal officials manage the National Elk Refuge in Jackson. All the feedgrounds are located in a three-county region: Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties. Each feedground is strategically located to gather elk and stop them from entering private lands and causing damage. The last feedground established was created in 1979, although state wildlife officials have conducted emergency feeding operations in various locations as needed.
The state feedground program provides winter feed to about 15,000 elk annually, with feeding lasting about 111 days, depending on the feedground and the winter conditions. Elk are generally fed between 5 and 8 pounds of hay per elk, per day.
The Good & Bad
The basic pros and cons of the elk feeding program include:
• Gathers elk away from private property to prevent damage to stored feed
• Allows for higher elk population numbers - On average, 79 percent of the elk in the Jackson and Pinedale regions are fed each year.
• Prevents starvation of wildlife
• Prevents elk and cattle commingling, decreasing risk of brucellosis transmission from elk to cattle.
• Prevents vehicle collisions.
• Concentrates animals, which increases risk of disease transmission.
• It’s expensive, costing $2.2 million in Fiscal Year 2020.
• Can allow the perception that habitat isn’t that important.
Why not stop feeding?
• Large scale elk die-offs could be expected
• Elk numbers may decrease 70-80 percent
• Elk and cattle commingling would occur
• Elk may transmit brucellosis to cattle
• Elk would be involved in damage situations
• Increased vehicle collisions and damages to fences would occur
• Increased competition for forage with other big game species such as mule deer.
File photo: Domestic cattle share their winter feed line with an elk calf.
Although elk feedgrounds were originally established to keep elk from starving in extreme winters, the situation changed with brucellosis. One of the primary reasons that elk are still maintained on elk feedgrounds is the presence of brucellosis in the elk population, and the need to keep elk and neighboring cattle herds from intermingling during the most dangerous time periods for disease transmission risk.
The United States has undertaken a brucellosis eradication effort for nearly a century, effectively eliminating the disease from the nation’s livestock herds, but elk and bison in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remain a wild reservoir for this contagious disease for which there is no treatment or cure. Brucellosis is caused by the brucella bacterium, and can cause large-scale abortion outbreaks in cattle, among other health issues.
USDA reports: “Brucellosis is commonly transmitted to susceptible animals by direct contact with infected animals or with an environment contaminated by discharges from infected animals. Despite occasional exceptions, the general rule is that brucellosis is carried from one herd to another by an infected or exposed animal. The disease may also be spread when wild animals or animals from an affected herd mingle with brucellosis-free herds.”
Although cattle within the counties where elk feedgrounds are located receive vaccinations against brucellosis, the vaccine is not 100% effective. Brucellosis is a stealth disease – it can hide from detection in the reproductive tract, with an incubation period that can vary from a few weeks to a few years.
Brucellosis is also is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted to humans and can cause serious human disease known for its undulating fever.
Chronic Wasting Disease
Chronic wasting disease is an emerging issue for elk feedground managers, with a recent detection in a cow elk in Grand Teton National Park. That elk was preceded by several CWD-infected deer at numerous locations in Sublette County in the last few years.
CWD is a chronic, fatal transmittable spongiform encephalopathy (in the same family as bovine spongiform encephalopathy) disease found in deer, elk, and moose. First identified in Wyoming deer and elk in the mid-1980s, CWD has been detected across most of Wyoming’s deer range. Although there have been no confirmed CWD cases in humans, health officials concede that CWD may pose a risk to humans.
WG&F reports in its 2020 CWD Management Plan: “Supplemental winter feeding of elk creates complex biological, social, economic, and political issues. Wildlife disease adds to this complexity. Potential impacts from CWD on feedground elk populations are largely unknown, although it is possible that CWD prevalence within feedground elk may exceed that of unfed elk.”
That CWD plan also notes WG&F “will determine if closures of specific feedgrounds can occur where dispersal of elk will not cause damage, conflict, or co-mingling issues with private property (i.e., stored crops, and domestic livestock) or create a need to drastically reduce overall elk numbers.”
The next stage of the plan is WG&F’s new effort to develop a long-term plan for management of the feedgrounds.
Wyoming Game & Fish Department map of elk feed grounds in western Wyoming. Note that green coloration is U.S. Forest Service, yellow is Bureau of Land Management, and white is private property.
WG&F fed 15,124 during the 2019-2020 winter, according to the WG&F Commission’s annual report. Here’s a rundown of the number of elk fed and the primary management emphasis for each of the state’s 22 feedgrounds, with the words in quotations taken directly from that annual report.
Black Butte: 1,014 elk, “to prevent damage on private lands, cattle/elk commingling and starvation.”
Green River Lake: 755 elk, “to prevent starvation.”
Franz: 193 elk, “to prevent damage on private lands, cattle/elk commingling and starvation.”
Jewett: 420 elk, “to prevent damage on private lands, cattle/elk commingling and starvation.”
Bench Corral: 952 elk, “to prevent damage on private lands, prevent cattle/elk commingling and starvation.”
North Piney: 400-600 elk, “for one month each year to gather elk above private lands. Feeding operations are terminated at the end of December, or when access with a vehicle to the feedground is no longer possible. The elk then migrate to Bench Corral feedground to be fed the remainder of the season.”
Finnegan: 483 elk, “to prevent damage on private lands, cattle/elk commingling and starvation.”
Muddy Creek: 471 elk, “to prevent damage on private lands, cattle/elk commingling and starvation. Muddy Creek is very close to cattle feedlines.”
Scab Creek: 723 elk, “to prevent damage on private lands, cattle/elk commingling and starvation.”
Fall Creek: 710 elk, “to prevent damage on private lands, cattle/elk commingling and starvation.”
Soda Lake: 960 elk, “to prevent damage on private lands, cattle/elk commingling and starvation.”
Alkali: 400 elk, “to catch elk that are moving down drainage. This feedground is located on United States Forest Service (USFS) property, however recent litigation resulted in the termination of feeding except for emergency situations.”
Patrol Cabin: 1,727 elk, “to prevent starvation, prevent damage to private property and to prevent elk from drifting down drainage.” Most of the elk that were being fed on this feedground were displaced by wolves and moved to the Fish Creek feedground.
Fish Creek: 1,727 elk, “to prevent damage to personal property, prevent starvation and to prevent elk from drifting down drainage.”
South Park: 871 elk, “to prevent damage to private property, prevent starvation and to hold elk off the highway.”
Horse Creek: 1,778 elk, “to prevent damage to private property, minimize starvation and to keep elk from dropping down country onto the highway.”
Camp Creek: 801 elk, “to prevent damage to private property, minimize starvation and to keep elk off the highway.”
Dog Creek: 975 elk, “to prevent damage to private property, minimize starvation and to keep elk off the highway.”
Alpine (Greys River): 488 elk, “to private property, minimize starvation and keep elk off the highway.”
Forest Park: 489 elk, “for the purpose of minimizing starvation and to maintain elk numbers.”
Dell Creek: 478 elk, “to prevent damage to private property and to minimize starvation. Dell Creek is very close to a private cattle operation and requires very close attention when it begins to snow and elk start to show up.”
McNeel: 836 elk, “for the purpose of preventing damage to private property and to prevent starvation. This feedground is very close to bison, horse and cattle feedlines.”