Scientists predict that when chronic wasting disease reaches the Greater Yellowstone area, it will spread rapidly among Wyoming's densely clustered feedground elk, likely infecting 50 percent or more of the population (see attached summary of scientific expert reports). Chronic wasting disease is 100 percent fatal. Earlier this month, chronic wasting disease was identified in the Owl Creek drainage west of Thermopolis, marking the closest known approach of the disease to the western Wyoming elk feedgrounds.
The environmental law firm Earthjustice sent the request on behalf of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, and Wyoming Outdoor Council. The groups' letter pointed out that the best means to address disease threats is to phase out the feedgrounds, allowing elk to spread out across the winter range as they do in Idaho and Montana.
"'Please don't feed the wildlife' is something we are taught at an early age and for good reason," said Lloyd Dorsey of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "When hundreds of elk are crowded together as they are on Wyoming's elk feedgrounds, conditions are ripe for a wildlife disease epidemic."
The Forest Service and BLM for years have authorized the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to construct and operate the feedgrounds on federal lands with little public involvement, virtually no environmental analysis and serious adverse consequences. The feeding program has led to high levels of brucellosis among the thousands of Wyoming elk that congregate on the feedgrounds, and now the crowding on feedgrounds has left elk in the Greater Yellowstone area extremely vulnerable to chronic wasting disease, the elk equivalent of "mad cow" disease.
"Feeding elk clumps them together where they share germs, allowing disease to spread among the animals like a cold running through a school classroom," says Wyoming Outdoor Council executive director Mark Preiss. "Free-ranging elk in other parts of Wyoming and surrounding states show much lower incidences of brucellosis than those found at feedgrounds, specifically 1-4 percent incidence rate versus up to 50 percent. It seems like a common sense solution to test what happens to disease levels around Yellowstone if we phase out a few feedgrounds."
The groups' letter also detailed legal violations in the Forest Service's authorization for a controversial "test-and-slaughter" program at the Muddy Creek elk feedground near Pinedale, Wyoming. Under that program, pregnant female elk that test positive for brucellosis will be trucked to slaughter, but no steps are planned to reduce the dense feedground concentrations that caused high brucellosis levels among the elk in the first place.
"Something has gone terribly wrong when the government is trucking pregnant female elk cows off to a slaughterhouse," said Franz Camenzind of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. "And for what? As long as elk are being fed, brucellosis will keep spreading."
The groups' letter called on the Forest Service and BLM to take responsive action by December 17, 2005. Otherwise, the letter said, the groups "will have no choice but to initiate legal action to insure that western Wyoming's elk are no longer jeopardized by your agencies' failure to address the threats caused by these feeding operations."
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