Seeking to protect Wyoming’s prized elk herds from the spread of disease, local conservationists are going to court to challenge the elk feeding program in western Wyoming.
“Crowding of elk on feedgrounds maintains brucellosis in southern [Greater Yellowstone’s] elk,” Bruce Smith, former senior wildlife biologist at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson wrote in a report on elk feeding last year. “We are left with elimination of elk feedgrounds as the most practical means of greatly reducing brucellosis,” the report concludes.
Smith and other scientists agree that crowding wild elk along feedlines allows diseases such as brucellosis to pass from animal to animal like a cold running through a classroom. Unfortunately, the “cold” on the horizon is chronic wasting disease. The elk equivalent of “mad cow” disease, chronic wasting disease is 100 percent fatal in elk. Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds “provide nearly ideal conditions for [chronic wasting disease] transmission among free-roaming elk,” according to the findings of Markus Peterson, an expert on wildlife diseases from Texas A&M University.
Last fall, chronic wasting disease was identified in the Owl Creek drainage west of Thermopolis, Wyoming, marking the closest known approach of the disease to the western Wyoming elk feedgrounds. Peterson anticipates that when chronic wasting disease reaches the Greater Yellowstone area, it too 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).
In an effort to avoid these disastrous disease impacts, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, and Wyoming Outdoor Council are asking a Wyoming federal court to order the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to begin an environmental review of 15 feedgrounds located on federal lands in western Wyoming. The review would study alternatives to the feeding program, such as a phase-out of the feedgrounds that would force elk to disperse across their natural winter range as they do in Montana and Idaho. The goal is to prevent an unnecessary loss of Wyoming’s iconic elk herds.
“We want to work with the Forest Service, the BLM, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department toward a commonsense solution to this issue. To find that solution, though, they need to thoroughly analyze and consider options other than just ‘business as usual,'” said Lloyd Dorsey of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
“The Forest Service and BLM have authorized these feedgrounds year after year with no regard for the brucellosis they spread or the potential for a massive chronic wasting disease outbreak among the crowded feedground elk populations. It’s critical to begin a study of alternatives to these feedgrounds immediately, before chronic wasting disease begins killing the region’s elk,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who is representing the groups in the lawsuit.
Wyoming’s approach to managing disease in its elk herds is currently limited to a controversial test-and-slaughter program at the Muddy Creek elk feedground near Pinedale, Wyoming. With this program, pregnant female elk that test positive for brucellosis are being trucked to an Idaho slaughterhouse to be killed. Just last week, state officials sent 42 elk from the Muddy Creek feedground to slaughter. In the meantime, elk managers have taken no steps to reduce the dense feedground concentrations that caused high brucellosis levels among the elk in the first place.
The groups’ lawsuit also challenges the Forest Service’s authorization of the facilities being used for this test-and-slaughter program, which include a complex of pens and chutes that has been dubbed the “mother of all elk traps” by state officials. The lawsuit seeks to halt the test-and-slaughter program pending a more thoughtful review of all the options.
“This test and slaughter program is a brutal management tool,” said Franz Camenzind of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. “We are unnecessarily killing elk when the brucellosis infection rate could be lowered by phasing out the feedgrounds and letting elk disperse throughout the landscape naturally.”
“It is unfortunate we have to go this route. Litigation is always our last resort,” added Mark Preiss of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “Wyoming people treasure their big game herds and these herds are increasingly threatened by disease. Working together, we can make a difference now if we use the best knowledge we have to make balanced choices that protect our wildlife and our quality of life.”