Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wyoming Game and Fish elk feedground plan walks tightwire of social, disease issues

Feedground workers dole out hay to elk at the Alkali Creek Feedground in 2018. Wyoming Game and Fish recently released a plan to manage the state’s feedgrounds.  (Courtesy of Wyoming Game and Fish)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Although congregating wildlife is known to spread deadly chronic wasting disease (CWD) and brucellosis, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is touting its new elk feedground management plan as a path forward without abandoning the practice.

The agency unveiled its strategy following four years of work that included public meetings across the state. Twenty-one winter elk feeding operations are overseen by the department in western Wyoming.

The state began the program in the winter of 1909-1910 to ensure the prized big game animals didn’t starve as their traditional wintering grounds were subdivided and migration routes were hampered by development like roads and fences.

In 2020, the cost of the feeding program was $2.7 million, the majority of which was spent on hay. Two full-time employees administer the program with 16 private contractors hired annually.

Disease concerns

Chronic wasting disease is an always fatal affliction that has steadily marched across Wyoming and adjoining states, including Montana. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, CWD is found in free-ranging wildlife in 32 states and four Canadian provinces. That’s up from detections in 21 states only four years earlier.

CWD is spread by infected cervids (members of the deer family, including moose) through bodily fluids. Unlike other illnesses caused by viruses or bacteria, however, CWD is triggered by misfolded proteins called prions. The prions are difficult to destroy, seem to persist in certain soils for years and may be able to spread via plants.

For years, conservation groups and even Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission have urged Wyoming to abandon the practice of feeding wildlife, since Wyoming’s wildlife are known to migrate to surrounding states. Yet the practice has been repeatedly touted as a way to keep elk from potentially infecting cattle with brucellosis and competing with livestock for grass. Some outfitters and hunters are also concerned about a sharp decline in elk populations if the feedgrounds are abandoned.

“While CWD is a significant factor in feedgrounds management, the ultimate goal of the feedgrounds collaborative process was to consider all biological, social, economic, and political issues, along with wildlife diseases, to achieve a durable long-term feedgrounds management plan informed by a public process for Department-operated feedgrounds.” Wyoming Game and Fish explained in its plan.

Yet the agency also noted in the plan that, “Given the Department’s responsibility to manage for healthy and sustainable cervid (deer, elk, and moose) populations over the long term, CWD cannot be disregarded.”

Setting up guidelines

The department’s answer to the conflicting social issues was to create “sideboards” meant to “provide assurances to the public and affected stakeholders.”

The sideboards include elk herd population reviews; prioritizing hunting as the primary tool to manage elk populations; minimizing elk damage to private property and disease transmission to livestock; avoiding negative economic impacts to livestock producers; and minimizing elk competition with other wintering wildlife.

To ensure these sideboards are followed, Wyoming Game and Fish will develop “feedground management action plans” for each elk herd unit.

“There has not been unified goals for feedground management in the past,” said Brad Hovinga, regional wildlife supervisor for the Jackson Region of Game and Fish, in an email.

The individual feedground plans, combined with the state plan, will provide “consistent direction to all Department employees on their roles and responsibilities,” Hovinga added.

Yet the agency also acknowledged that “the status quo may be the only option for some feedgrounds unless conditions change in the future.”

Tactics to avoid disease

To lessen the chances that disease will spread on feedgrounds, the department may shrink elk populations through hunting.

In some places, this may mean a reduction to the point where the herd can subsist without a feedground. Another tactic is to spread out feed to disperse the animals, or to move feeding areas. The duration of the feeding season could also be cut.

Habitat enhancement to improve native forage is another tactic being considered.

“To manage disease issues in western Wyoming elk, new and innovative paths need to be explored to allow elk to winter away from feedgrounds where opportunities allow while continuing to minimize conflict with livestock operations and limiting competition with other wintering wildlife,” the WGFD plan said.

“In the case of Teton and northern Lincoln counties, this will require looking outside of traditional agricultural use properties.”

Jim Magagna, executive vice-president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said his group recognizes the many challenges Wyoming Game and Fish faces in dealing with elk feedgrounds, disease transmission and large elk populations.

“If we are to eliminate the feedgrounds, then, we believe, that the G&F must analyze the need to significantly reduce these elk populations,” he wrote in an email. “We are also concerned with the consideration of the acquisition of more winter grazing on private lands in lieu of feeding elk. If this is done, it is critical that it be done in a manner that does not in any way reduce available grazing capacity for livestock.”

Montana elk hunter and Sierra Club Northern Rockies field organizer Nick Gevock said the WGFD plan continually contradicts itself, acknowledging the problem of disease while also calling for the status quo to be maintained.

“This is just bad wildlife policy,” he said. “We talk about managing wildlife by the science, and the science is very clear.”

Wrapping it up

In concluding its 96-page feedground plan, WGFD noted, it’s clear that some changes are needed. Negotiating those changes, however, will be difficult.

“It is easy to see what we have in common; an instinctive and serious obligation to make certain that healthy, sustainable wildlife populations endure,” the agency wrote. “It is difficult, however, to come to agreement on how to accomplish that monumental task.”

The conclusion also noted, “Controlling elk distributions in western Wyoming through supplemental feeding is not sustainable.” Therefore, the department is dedicated to incremental change over the long term.

The plan also concludes with a substantial list of research priorities, including such topics as “environmentally friendly methods of prion deactivation” and a “pilot project for feedground phase-out” at North Pine and Alkali feedgrounds.