In an effort to restore healthy elk herds, resume natural migrations and dramatically reduce the risk of catastrophic disease, five conservation organizations are taking the U.S. Department of the Interior to court over its decision to continue the harmful artificial feeding of elk on the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. The groups want the agency to follow its own scientists’ advice by creating a plan that better protects the health of the habitat and its wildlife.
Winter feedings on the National Elk Refuge have altered the plant and animal communities so dramatically that it is no longer a healthy, properly functioning environment. This practice violates the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, a directive from Congress to provide healthy habitat. The agency’s current plan acknowledges the potent disease risk that accompanies high concentrations of animals like those found on the elk refuge in winter, and that the best way to reduce the threat and promote healthy populations of bison and elk is to phase out the annual winter feeding. Yet the plan takes no action to address the threats to the refuge and the elk that live there.
“Elk feeding was established as a means to help the elk, but now we know that crowded feedlines threaten a wildlife disease epidemic that could kill hundreds of these magnificent animals,” said Tim Preso of Earthjustice who is representing the coalition. “It’s time to adapt our elk management to deal with this disease threat before elk start dying on the National Elk Refuge.”
“Basically we’ve got way too many animals on too small an area for too long a time,” said Barry Reiswig, a retired National Elk Refuge manager. “They’re way over the elk refuge’s carrying capacity.”
Brucellosis, chronic wasting disease, scabies and hoof rot are all diseases of concern for the estimated 7,500 elk that congregate on feed lines each winter. Scabies and hoof rot are already visibly prevalent on the refuge, and the crowded conditions foster brucellosis as well. The most ominous possibility is the spread of CWD. In the farm-like conditions of the refuge, disease can spread quickly through the herds. CWD has already been found as close as Thermopolis, Wyoming, about 70 miles to the east.
By asking the Department of the Interior to follow its own scientists’ recommendations to carefully phase out artificial feeding, the groups are ensuring healthy free-ranging wildlife herds for future generations while protecting livestock, hunting and the area’s economy.
Earthjustice is filing the action in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of: Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, Wyoming Outdoor Council and the National Wildlife Refuge Association.