Great reBlog from the Powell Tribune: Closing the Elk Feed Grounds will Curb CWD

Written by Gib Mathers


Elk winter feedgrounds in western Wyoming should be phased out to curb the potential spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in elk.

That is what Lloyd Dorsey of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Jackson recommends, using information he gathered from Wyoming Game & Fish Department reports.

Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, has been detected 40 miles from Yellowstone National Park and 45 miles from winter elk feedgrounds, according to a coalition map. Chronic wasting disease is a fatal disease of the central nervous system of deer, Rocky Mountain elk and (rarely) moose, according to the Game & Fish.

The 2012 department information reveals the farthest western advance of CWD positive deer in Wyoming yet, according to a coalition news release.

The disease occurs at a higher rate in deer areas than elk areas. Chronic wasting disease might arrive in feedgrounds, but it hasn’t so far, and they can’t predict whether it will, said Game & Fish information specialist Al Langston in Cheyenne.

But other experts sounded a warning.

“Finally, our results demonstrate that high-density elk populations (10 to 100 elk per kilometer squared) can support relatively high rates of CWD (.10 percent prevalence) that may substantially affect the dynamics of such populations,” stated an 2013 article by Ryan J. Monello and associates in “The Journal of Wildlife Diseases.”

“The good news is that the disease has not been detected at the feedgrounds or national parks yet,” said Bruce Smith, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and former biologist at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson. “Managers can still act to responsibly phase out winter feeding of elk and limit the effects of this and other diseases.”

Game & Fish staffers search for the disease by collecting and analyzing wild ungulate lymph nodes, mostly from animals harvested by hunters.

Testing is very reliable using lymph nodes. Analyzing live animal samples is not as accurate, Langston said.

A total of 2,017 deer, elk and moose samples were examined in 2012. Of those samples, 98 tested positive for CWD, including 78 mule deer, six white-tailed deer and 14 elk. New cases of the disease were diagnosed in deer hunt areas 132 (west of Flaming Gorge) and 157 (east of Pavillion) as well as elk hunt area 10 (west of Laramie).

These hunt areas all are bordered by known positive areas or states and are most likely natural extensions of the endemic area, according to a Game & Fish 2013 CWD report.

The state’s only CWD-positive elk are in southeastern Wyoming, but CWD-positive deer do occupy the Big Horn Basin, according to a Game & Fish 2012 map.

No elk harvested in western Wyoming tested positive last year. If those elk had not been killed by hunters, they would have wintered in the feedgrounds, Langston said.

A total of 3,273 deer, elk and moose samples were analyzed in 2011. Of those samples, 109 tested positive for CWD, representing 81 mule deer, 16 white-tailed deer and 12 elk. One new case of the disease was diagnosed in deer hunt area 165 (north of Meeteetse). Area 165 is bordered by known positive areas and likely a natural extension of the endemic area, said a 2012 Game & Fish report.

“Rocky Mountain elk do very well without feedgrounds, for the most part,” Dorsey said.

For example, in the Gros Ventre area there are three feedgrounds, but there also is good winter range. Conflicts could be mitigated.

“We’d be happy to help find resources to build elk-proof fences to help keep elk separate from cattle and horses during winter and spring, and prevent inter-species transmission of brucellosis,” Dorsey said.

About 80 percent of the elk in seven herd units comprising west-central Wyoming use the feedgrounds. Although nobody knows how many, there would be fewer elk without feedgrounds, said Brandon Scurlock, a Game & Fish brucellosis program supervisor in Pinedale.

Typically, the units are at or over population objectives, Dorsey said.

As examples, the Jackson herd objective is 11,000 elk. The 2012 estimate was 11,051. The Fall Creek herd objective is 4,400. The 2012 estimate was 4,500.

There are 23 feedgrounds in western Wyoming. Of those, 22 are managed by the state and one, the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, is run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Brucellosis is endemic in elk populations that visit elk feedgrounds in western Wyoming. It also is found in some elk herds that do not attend elk feedgrounds, but typically at a lower rate, Dorsey said.

Now is the time to phase out the feedgrounds before a CWD epidemic occurs in those areas, Dorsey said.

Great ReBlog from NRDC

Photo of Grizzly

(photo credit:

Grizzly Death One More Reason to End Wyoming Elk Feeding Programs

by Zack Strong

On Thanksgiving Day three hunters shot and killed a male grizzly in Grand Teton National Park.  According to the Jackson Hole News and Guide, the three men were hunting in heavy timber along the east side of the Snake River between Schwabacher’s Landing and Teton Point Overlook, when the bear charged them.  Investigating park officials discovered a cow elk carcass near where the shooting took place.  The death was the 51st grizzly bear mortality in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2012.

The hunters who shot the grizzly were participating in the park’s Elk Reduction Program—a hunting season made legal by the enabling legislation that authorized the park’s expansion in 1950.

I’m a hunter.  Have been all my life.  First helped my dad quarter and pack out an elk when I was three.  There are many reasons why I hunt, and why I support and encourage others to hunt.  It gets us outside, gets us back into the mountains, reconnects us with wild places and wild animals and wild weather.  It’s great exercise.  It brings families together.  And there isn’t any healthier, environmentally friendly meat than wild game.

But there are places we shouldn’t be hunting, and Grand Teton National Park is one of them.  For one, it poses a safety risk to the park’s many fall visitors—hunters and non-hunters alike.  It places large numbers of people, many of whom are carrying rifles, in relatively confined areas, often with poor visibility.  Hunters leave gut piles in hard-to-see places, which attract hungry, defensive, hard-to-see bears (often mothers with cubs).  Last year, a hunter was attacked and injured by a grizzly in the same area as this year’s incident.

It is also bad for Yellowstone-area grizzlies, a subpopulation protected by the Endangered Species Act that relies on the intact, protected ecosystems within Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks to continue to recover to a sustainable population size.  The bears are becoming habituated to finding and claiming hunters’ gut piles year after year—and learning to hear rifle shots as “dinner bells.”  This can lead to conflicts between bears and hunters over carcasses; conflicts which, all too often, result in bear deaths.

Park officials and biologists say that the Elk Reduction Program (and, apparently, the risks it poses to humans and grizzlies) will be necessary as long as winter feeding on the nearby National Elk Refuge continues to result in large numbers of elk migrating north to the Park in the spring.  But this rationale is disturbing because it justifies a bad practice with one that is even worse.

Every winter, the National Elk Refuge, along with Wyoming’s 22 other state-operatedfeedgrounds,  provide hay and alfalfa pellets to more than 20,000 elk to improve winter survival rates, thereby maintaining an artificially high population.  (Contrast this practice with, for example, Montana’s, which makes it a crime to provide supplemental feed attractants to game animals.  See Montana Code Annotated section 87-6-216.)

Photo of National Elk Refuge

(photo credit USFWS Mountain Prairie on Flickr)

Feedground operators and many Wyoming residents support the practice because of the revenue these elk herds generate for local communities through tourism and hunting.  But feedgrounds foster unnaturally dense concentrations of elk, which results in a variety of problems, the most serious of which is increased infectious disease transmission.  For example, 30% of the elk using Wyoming’s feedgrounds are infected with brucellosis.  Elk in these unnatural conditions are also more susceptible to scabies, foot rot, and other afflictions.

Most concerning, though, is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a highly contagious neurological disease that causes degeneration in the brain tissue of affected animals.  Basically, it is the cervid (deer, elk, moose) equivalent of mad cow disease.  It is a horrible disease, which causes animals to literally waste away and die within 1 to 4 months of exhibiting symptoms.  Those symptoms include listlessness, emaciation, drooling, repetitive walking in a set pattern, and constant thirst.  CWD is always fatal.  And while CWD prevalence in free-ranging elk herds is only 1-3%, its prevalence in captive herds, whose densities more closely match those of feedground elk, has been recorded as high as 59%.

While it has not yet reached Wyoming’s feedgrounds, it has been documented in captive and free-ranging elk populations to the south and east.  And it is heading northwest.  It is transmitted through infectious agents called prions, which can spread either directly from infected animals, or indirectly from the soil (while animals are browsing).  Prions enter the soil through blood, saliva, feces, urine, and even antler velvet.  Once in the soil, prions can persist and remain infectious (and deadly) for years.  The disease has a long incubation period of several months to years, meaning it can be transmitted widely throughout a herd before the first physical symptoms are detectable.

The point here is simple: feedgrounds are bad news—for people, elk, bears and others.  So why haven’t they been stopped?

In 2008, a coalition of conservation groups filed suit in federal court to ask that the practice of feeding elk on federal land in Wyoming be phased out and ended within five years.  Eventually, the case made it to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where, in 2011, a panel of judges ruled that the practice must eventually come to an end.  The court recognized that “[t]here is no doubt that unmitigated continuation of supplemental feeding would undermine the conservation purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge.” (Opinion, p. 10).  The Court refused, however, to impose any deadline, deciding that a mandatory stop date was not necessary so long as the agencies involved were committed to eventually phasing out and ending the supplemental feeding—which the court believed they were.

Though the court’s language and decision were encouraging, the feeding programs will remain in place for the foreseeable future.  And because the lawsuit only challenged feeding practices on federal lands, the court’s decision does not affect the remaining 22 state-operated feedgrounds.

In the name of elk and other wildlife, let’s hope that the agencies, operators and feedground supporters move forward as quickly as possible to end this unnecessary and counterproductive practice.  Let’s hope they remember that the longer they wait, the closer CWD creeps toward northwestern Wyoming, the greater the odds that another fall visitor to Grand Teton National Park will be injured, and the higher the likelihood that another park grizzly, just trying to be a bear, will die.

Photo of Grizzly(

(photo credit:  gainesp2003 on Flickr)


How quickly will national elk feeding grounds spread chronic wasting disease?

Article from, 1/6/2012



The federal handouts to 12,000-some elk on the National Elk Refuge near Jackson Hole, WY, have gotten a lot of criticism lately as a potential mass distribution system for chronic wasting disease. An online documentary series, Terra the Nature of our World, just re-aired the documentary Feeding the Problem by Danny Schmidt, which warns that unless feeding is phased out, the scary, brain-destroying, fatal disease may sicken most of the population. Bruce Smith, a former biologist for the range who was interviewed in the film, also just relaeased a book Where Elk Roam: Conservation and Biopolitics of Our National Elk Herd, which says the population should be cut in half.

For about a century people have been feeding elk in the winter on the range. It started as a way to placate local ranchers, who otherwise ended up feeding the elk with their cattle. Now it’s a hit with hunters, who have a supersized elk population to stalk. And, let’s be honest, animal tourists get a kick out of seeing them so easily. In winter the herd is a spectacle and tradition. Horses pull sleighs among the animals. The antlers they shed are picked up by boyscouts, auctioned off and turned into monuments in Jackson Hole.

At this point it’s inevitable that CWD will reach the feeding ground–even those who support feeding admit that. But they question whether it will be that big of a deal. One rancher complains in Feeding the Problem that there is “too much science” in the argument against feeding. It’s one thing to hear Republican presidential candidates pretend that global warming doesn’t exist; they get money and support from the oil industry. But here are local guides and ranchers arguing that science isn’t really about data and results, but a matter of theory and opinion. As Upton Sinclair said: “It’s hard to make a man understandsomething when his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.”

The big question is what will happen to the elk when the disease hits the feeding range. Will CWD inflict widespread disease and suffering and wipe out the elks? Or just cause widespread disease and suffering? Should we try to avert a catastrophe? Or just wait and see how big a catastrophe it really is?

Right now Wyoming is already testing for CWD, which is strongest in the opposite (southeast) corner of the state. Because the disease can spread through contact with droppings and urine, the feed ground staff already spreads the feed wide and covers over elk droppings with snow. But there is still confusion about how exactly CWD spreads–though biologists are pretty sure it’s more easily than other brain-wasting transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), also known as prion diseases. Neighboring Montana accuses Wyoming of allowing the disease to spread.

One of the ranchers interviewed, Brad Mead, says he was reluctantly turned around by the  science and thinks the area would be better off dealing with CWD before it hits the elk refuge. “I have to believe tourism would suffer a lot if ppl driving down the highway past the elk refuge saw elk dying of chronic wasting disease in the hundreds or thousands,” Mead says.

Of great interest to bison lovers: Mead also says that as a rancher, brucellosis isn’t really that big of a concern. Brucellosis is the excuse for slaughtering bison that roam outside the park–even though it’s been shown they catch it through elk. But I guess that’s too much science.


Front Page News in Jackson Hole, WY

Feeding the Problem (Planet News, Jackson Hole)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

By Jake Nichols


Jackson Hole, Wyo.-The impetus for taking another look at an ongoing dilemma playing out in the Elk Refuge and 22 other state-run feed grounds in Western Wyoming is last week’s screening of the documentary “Feeding the Problem: 100 years of Feeding Elk in Northwest Wyoming” by Danny Schmidt at the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

The award-winning 26-minute film was commissioned by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) with the hope that at least a talking point would be created.
“We did not have control of the film yet we chose to support the effort,” said GYC representative Lloyd Dorsey. “He contacted us looking for environmental issues to do film work on for his masters at Montana State University. 

He was exceptionally well-informed about the issue and we just gave him names of people across the spectrum of the issue. I believe when anybody watches this they will see all sides – the outfitters and the hunter and the rancher and the scientists.”
Some commentary from the film is used in this article.

Feeding elk is merciful, especially considering the region’s harsh winters. But feeding elk for the past century has also been feeding a problem. Several groups have come forward in recent years using sound argument and scare tactics to prove their point: The “farm style” feeding of elk has had unintended consequences, is deviant from nature, and is a recipe for disaster.

The controversy over elk feeding grounds and the potential for such artificial conditions to promote disease is heating up. Science backs those who insist we must return to a more natural state of “live-and-let-live” with wildlife. Convincing those who cannot bear to stand by and watch the decimation of herds, at the expense of livelihood and heritage to some, will be another matter altogether.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) has been one of the organizations leading the charge to create public awareness that the answer to managing our elk population does not come bound in bailing twine.

Feed lines breed disease
The immediate and real threats of elk feedlots, according to GYC’s Lloyd Dorsey, are diseases like brucellosis and the more deadly chronic wasting disease (CWD). 
“Phasing out the feed grounds will be beneficial to the entire ecosystem because the diseases the elk get are transmissible to other elk herds and other members of the deer family like mule deer and moose and so forth – chronic wasting disease being one of them,” Dorsey said. “If we can keep CWD from affecting the dense, artificially concentrated animals on the feed grounds then that is the recommended management paradigm for the ecosystem. It would be very beneficial brucellosis-wise as well, and that is the position of the states of Montana and Idaho: that the state of Wyoming needs to phase out these feed grounds.”

On the other end of the spectrum are outfitters, some who are suspicious of the science, who say eliminating a feed program would create problems even worse than CWD.

“The State of Wyoming did a survey a couple of years ago asking people what they knew about Jackson Hole. Number one was Yellowstone. Number two was our elk herds,” said Harold Turner, current patriarch of the Turner family operating Triangle X Ranch which runs a large outfitter business every fall. “We are famous worldwide because we have a lot of elk. And we have a lot of elk because of the feeding grounds. If the elk feeding grounds were shut down we will not only lose our economic base but we will lose our heritage.”

While GYC believes a sustainable ecosystem should never include artificial feeding, the threat of CWD is used by Dorsey and his camp as the ultimate disaster scenario. Brucellosis continues to plague western ranchers and they are vigilant about keeping their livestock away from possible carriers like elk and bison, but CWD – which was discovered in a moose near Jackson in 2009 – would be a knockout punch.

“Chronic Wasting Disease is the death of the brain a little at a time. There is no cure. It is 100 percent fatal,” said wildlife biologist Dr. Bruce Smith. He worked for the Elk Refuge from 1982 to 2004. Smith believes the proper thing to do is wean elk off the dole gradually after a smaller, more realistic carrying capacity is reached. 
Some outfitters and ranchers, meanwhile, don’t seem too worried.

“Brucellosis? In the old days when the state came by every once in a while and tested our cows we might get one that tested positive for brucellosis,” Turner said. “That was what we called a ‘banger.’ You just cut her out, painted her yellow and then you’d eat her. That’s all you ever did, and there was never a big stink about it. Brucellosis is kind of like smoke.”

Fellow rancher Glenn Taylor distrusts science. He would rather things be managed less from the chalkboard and more from the saddle. “I don’t think [CWD] is as serious as they make you think,” Taylor said.

“CWD is a vehicle,” Turner said. “That’s not to say it isn’t a bad disease. It is. But it has become a vehicle for a lot of other issues like the one to do away with feeding. To say that feeding or not feeding is going to save this elk herd, well, we are not going to know until we get it.” 

Smith, for one, doesn’t want to wait that long.
“What will happen if CWD gets into the Elk Refuge? My short answer is: I don’t want to know,” Smith said. “We need to think proactively because if there is nothing you can do to turn the clock back and say later that ‘maybe we shouldn’t have had all these elk congregated together,’ then people who are currently making the management decisions are going to be blamed, and should be, by those who come after us for not doing what they could have done.”

In free-ranging herds, CWD rarely affects more than 10 percent of the population, if that, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist Dr. Thomas Roffe. “In confined situations, those numbers can get very, very high,” Roffe said.

“Look at the Elk Refuge,” Dorsey said, pointing to a map. “It is virtually in the center of the GYE; the heart. The fear is that if they are densely concentrated there on the Elk Refuge with their feeding regime, it will act as a disease pump. If CWD gets to the feed grounds we may well be facing a wildlife catastrophe in western Wyoming.”

Cattlemen are often in the middle of the controversy, and noted local beef producer Brad Mead finds himself gravitating toward the evidence.

“As a rancher, I’m not that panicky about brucellosis but CWD is a whole ‘nother matter,” Mead said. “And if it shows up in the Elk Refuge then ‘Katy bar the door.’ That would be a biological crisis of the first order.” Mead, like a lot of ranchers, enjoyed the belief that wildlife feed grounds kept potentially diseased elk out of his hair and out of his bovine lunch line. But he is reluctantly coming to the realization that there needs to be a cultural shift.

“There is a multiplicity of stakeholders. Everybody loves elk. They are an iconic species in this part of the West,” Dorsey said. “But people are slowly getting it. Even if you are an outfitter or a hunter you have to come to recognize that, though the unique solution of feeding was maybe the best technology and science at the time 100 years ago to save what they perceived as a species in trouble, a change has to take place. Not all people quite frankly are there yet. Change is difficult. Change is tough.”

Is migration an option or a myth?
Change will require a return to a more natural state. Many old-timers like longtime outfitter Gap Pucci, believe that elk and other game herds are no longer able to use winter traditional feeding grounds because of development. Migration corridors have also been cut off by highways and subdivisions.

Other multi-generational ranchers in Jackson Hole insist elk never migrated the long distances claimed by historians. 

“Everybody is probably right,” Dorsey said. He added that long-distance migrations from Yellowstone to the Red Desert and the Colorado Desert did occur in pre-settlement times, likely in the harshest winters. Other herds stuck it out in higher elevations. “It’s kind of nature’s way of betting the genetic chips on the best manner. A little on red 37, this herd on black 23, and over here another bunch on red 17. That increases the odds of maintaining good diverse genetics throughout the landscape.”

Dorsey pointed out several quality winter ranges that have traditionally carried a good number of elk through the winter, particularly the Upper Green River Basin and the Gros Ventre Range. Other herds have preferred – and now more recently with wolves on their heels – rediscovered areas like the northern Wind River Range and the Sand Creek, Idaho area, which Dorsey said can carry 4,000 head of elk in the winter.

What would happen if we stop feeding the elk?
“Some people think that elk used to going to the refuge will die if the food is suddenly cut off,” Dorsey said. “We know that isn’t true, historically. We now have better protections on public lands in place than we did a hundred years ago.”
Dorsey said other parts of the 20-million-acre ecosystem of the greater Yellowstone area have no feedgrounds and the elk herds are bountiful. 

“What if we stopped feeding today?” pondered elk feed ground supervisor Bernie Holz. “My professional opinion is we’d end up having to reduce elk population by an average of 70 to 80 percent.”

Astounding figures but not all that different from estimates on how much of overall elk population might suffer if CWD got into the Jackson herd.

“There would still be plenty of elk,” Dorsey said. “You likely would have a different distribution of elk but there would not be a catastrophic loss of elk throughout the ecosystem.”

Dorsey said the 8,000 head of wintering elk in the refuge should be more like 3,000. Other areas where people were accustomed to seeing thousands of elk might be reduced to hundreds. “We need to get the numbers down in accordance with the carrying capacity and the human community. During this period of change we will likely have to accept fewer elk within our viewscape,” he said.

Dorsey admitted that there would be some mortality in the transition period. The general public would likely struggle with watching elk starve to death.

“From what I’ve heard about CWD – it is not a pretty thing to watch, either,” Mead said. “And I have to believe that tourism would suffer a lot if people driving by on the highway past the Elk Refuge saw animals dying of CWD in the hundreds or thousands.”

Dorsey tells elk-lovers not to worry. He points to positive signs like Wyoming’s elk harvest success rate, which has held strong at just under 40 percent for the past few years. Harvest rates of elk in Colorado, Montana, and Idaho are barely half that.

“Elk are no longer a rare species,” Dorsey said. “The patient, so to speak, no longer needs to be in intensive care. It needs to be allowed to range free like the other elk herds elsewhere in surrounding states and in the rest of Wyoming.”

******Clarification – the author of this article misstated the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s involvement in the film.  Though they support, and continue to support the film, they did not commission it.  – Daniel Schmidt



Courts remind managers of looming disease threat on National Elk Refuge.
By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 16, 2011
In August, a nearly decade-long analysis of wildlife management on the National Elk Refuge finally concluded.

In a sweeping environmental study, officials decided they would reduce the elk population wintering on the refuge from roughly 7,000 to 5,000. The move is designed to bring the herd more in balance with the available habitat and let the animals spread out — helpful in stemming the spread of diseases.

Of the many maladies transmitted among crowded elk, chronic wasting disease looms as an existential threat to the 12,000-strong Jackson Elk Herd and the economy that’s grown around it. Always fatal, the disease has no known cure and is marching west across Wyoming, infecting a moose near elk winter feedgrounds in Star Valley.

“There’s no way we can prevent it from coming to the refuge,” Steve Kallin, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge, said last week. His statement underscores a challenge: How does his agency provide enough elk to satisfy a public that’s grown to expect thousands of the ungulates, while spreading out animals as much as possible to prevent contagion?

Even under its new plan, endorsed by a court this summer, the refuge will be an overstocked winter range that makes elk susceptible to the spread of disease, critics say. Former National Elk Refuge biologist Bruce Smith, author of the new book “Where Elk Roam” and a subsequent op-ed on disease and ungulates, says refuge elk can best be protected by wintering only 2,700 of the animals on the preserve just north of Jackson. That way, they can spread out and forage on their own.

Kallin, however, is bound by the management plan and the court ruling, and is hemmed in by social and political considerations just as the elk herd is hemmed in by encroaching human development.

“We’re moving as quickly as we can to try and reduce the potential for elevated transmission of that disease,” Kallin said.

Despite fears chronic wasting disease could decimate the refuge herd, the reserve’s current biologist can’t confirm that scenario. He has tried to estimate its spread using biological models, without success.

“The results were so variable so as to not yield any useful information,” National Elk Refuge biologist Eric Cole said. “Anyone who is making certain predictions on what will happen here is being disingenuous.”

Kallin agrees. “There are no conclusive answers as to what CWD will do when it arrives,” he said.

Kallin is moving quickly in the best interest of elk. He understands his management plan was affirmed in court, where judges tickled his ribs with their legal spurs.

Reducing herd size

“[T]he whole point of a National Elk Refuge is to provide a sanctuary in which populations of healthy, reproducing elk can be sustained,” the appeals court wrote.

“The refuge can hardly provide such a sanctuary if, every winter, elk and bison are drawn by the siren song of human-provided food to what becomes, through the act of gathering, a miasmic zone of life-threatening diseases. There is no doubt that unmitigated continuation of supplemental feeding would undermine the conservation purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” the court wrote.

The word “unmitigated” put refuge managers on notice. They must do what they can to reduce the concentration of elk to help stop the spread of disease.

“We’re trying to reduce herd sizes,” Kallin said and ticked off measures being taken to insulate refuge elk from maladies. Refuge workers have increased forage by installing a $5.1 million irrigation system, helping to reduce supplemental feeding.

Each day in winter, feeders try to move to “clean snow” to reduce the chance of spreading disease. When alfalfa pellets are dispensed, they are spread out in long, serpentine lines.

“We drive as fast as we possibly can,” Deputy Refuge Manager Paul Santavy said of efforts to string out the feed and the herd.

Elk spend less time on the refuge today, harassed off the winter range by hunters in the fall. If they linger too long in the spring, they’re given the boot.

Meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Grand Teton National Park, all partners in the refuge plan, is keeping a keen eye out for CWD. Testing of hunter-killed animals is widespread around Jackson Hole.

“Essentially every animal that dies on the refuge that we can get to before it’s scavenged is put through an intensive necropsy,” Kallin said.

Animals killed in the Grand Teton elk reduction program also are tested. Wildlife managers are 99 percent confident they will detect CWD before it infects more than 1 percent of the animals.

While the refuge plan calls for 5,000 elk, the Jackson Elk Herd numbered 12,000 at last winter’s count. The annual census counted 7,746 on refuge feed.

Wyoming Game and Fish has an objective of 11,000 animals for the Jackson Elk Herd that winters on the refuge, in the Buffalo Valley and up the Gros Ventre River drainage. Wyoming Game and Fish operates three feedgrounds along the Gros Ventre.

That means under the plan, 6,000 animals would be wintering in the Gros Ventre if the state objective is met. In both locations, elk would be concentrated around artificial feeding.

“The tough medicine from Smith’s book is if we as a community don’t phase out feeding soon, the repercussions could be catastrophic,” said Lloyd Dorsey, the Wyoming representative for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

“The science is clear,” he said. “The best opportunities to re-establish free-ranging healthy elk are in Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre.”

Smith writes the best protection for elk would be to see no more than 2,500 on the refuge. Up to 9,000 elk have wintered naturally in the Gros Ventre drainage in the past, he says. Bridger-Teton National Forest Jackson District Ranger Dale Deiter recognizes why that area is valauble.

“One of the things that makes the Gros Ventre special is it’s in the rain shadows of the Tetons,” he said.

Retired Wyoming Game and Fish habitat biologist Steve Kilpatrick believes 9,000 might be too many elk for the Gros Ventre in a snowy winter.

“I think 9,000 is high, said Kilpatrick, now working at the Conservation Research Center of Teton Science Schools.

More elk in the Gros Ventre

“In heavy snow years the area could hold only about 4,000 without feeding,” Kilpatrick said.

“The public would have to stomach a non-average winter,” he said. But a smaller herd — “that’s not consistent with the public’s expectation [for] the number of elk on the landscape.”

Kilpatrick has been among a coalition of habitat managers working since 2003 through the Jackson Interagency Habitat Initiative to improve winter habitat in the Gros Ventre drainage.

Managers have set fires to rejuvenate approximately 15,000 acres of the landscape there. Natural fires have covered another 21,000 acres, and cattle grazing allotments have been changed to reserve even more winter range for wildlife.

“What I personally observed is wildlife has used those areas extensively,” ranger Deiter said.

“The burned areas will green up faster. The new vegetation is more palatable,” he said.

The forest wasn’t as thick before humans began to put out fires, Deiter said. Still, educating the public about the benefits of setting forest and range fires is a challenge.

“Nobody really sees too many trees as a disturbance,” he said, “but it is if it’s too dense.”

Agencies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars improving habitat in the Gros Ventre drainage, a project initially launched for elk but now benefiting many species. While elk are still being fed at state feedgrounds, Kilpatick said the habitat work remains important. He sees the open hills as a safety net for elk, should chronic wasting disease infect feedgrounds.

Author Smith says managers are playing with fire, that worries by hunters and others who fear a world with fewer elk must be put aside to protect an invaluable resource.

“Better a smaller elk herd than an overstocked range riddled with disease,” he writes.

Smith’s replacement suggests science isn’t as cut-and-dried as some believe.

“Science doesn’t tell us the right thing to do,” biologist Cole said. “It allows us to predict outcomes and make recommendations.”

In affirming the refuge plan this summer, judges found no reason to put refuge managers on a strict schedule for changes and were satisfied Wyoming Game and Fish does not hold veto power over the federal agency. Despite the clear language about diseases the appellate judges used in their ruling, they had to cough up another passage supporting supplemental feeding and some crowding of elk. In doing so, elegant prose gave way to governmentspeak and cliche.

The Department of the Interior, they said, in choosing to continue some feeding, also selected a long-term plan to spread elk out. It was “an approach that is geared toward ending the practice over time while maintaining the flexibility needed to respond to facts on the ground,” the court wrote.

Kallin puts the issue in his own language. The refuge program now has an “adaptive management” component that will allow him to make changes if CWD shows up. “We can adjust,” he said.

“There will never be consensus on answers that will satisfy everyone,” Kallin said. “That’s why, I’m assuming, it took nine years to get through the [management plan] process.

“The biological information has to be viewed in the context of other considerations — social considerations,” he said.“We tried to come up with the most reasonable approach to managing the herd.

“Willdlife management would be easy,” Kallin said, “if it wasn’t for people.”

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Feeding the Problem is an Official Selection at the 2011 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival!



Where Elk Roam: Conservation and Biopolitics of Our National Elk Herd

Check out the latest book from Dr. Bruce Smith, former wildlife biologist on the National Elk Refuge and prominent character in Feeding the Problem.

His latest title, Where Elk Roam: Conservation and Biopolitics of Our National Elk Herd,provides an inside look at the field studies and conservation work of a federal wildlife scientist who for twenty-two years served as the National Elk Refuge’s wildlife biologist, coordinating winter feeding of 8,000 elk and tracking their births, deaths, and annual migrations throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”

You can PREORDER the book on AMAZON by clicking here!

Bruce Smith is a wildlife biologist and science writer.  He spent most of his 30-year federal career managing wildlife populations on the Wind River Indian Reservation and the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming.  His research produced over 40 technical and popular papers and book chapters focused primarily on large mammal population dynamics, habitat ecology, diseases, migratory behavior, and predator-prey relationships.

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