Appeals Court Rules in Case Challenging Elk Feed Grounds

Phasing out annual winter feedings needed to protect elk, other wildlife


Tim Preso, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699

Today the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a mixed ruling in a lawsuit brought by conservationists seeking to protect elk and other wildlife from disease.

The conservation groups challenged winter elk feeding programs on federal lands in Wyoming because dense crowding of elk on feed grounds encourages outbreaks of wildlife disease. One such disease is brucellosis which is shared by both elk and domestic cattle. Brucellosis in elk herds has prompted state officials to slaughter elk.

The lawsuit sought to require federal agencies to examine the impacts of winter elk feeding before Chronic wasting disease (CWD), a disease fatal to elk, deer and other wildlife species, invades the western Wyoming feedground complex. CWD is the elk form of mad cow disease. It has been detected in wildlife east and south of some of the targeted feed grounds. The arrival of chronic wasting disease among the crowded feed ground elk would inevitably kill many elk and would taint the feed grounds themselves with the infectious disease material, which persists in the soil even after the elk die.  

In response to the case, the U.S. Forest Service did what conservationists asked by preparing an environmental impact statement examining the impacts of feed grounds within the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Based on that action, the appeals court ruled that much of the conservationists’ lawsuit was moot.

As to the remaining issues, the appeals court ruled that four feed grounds on land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management were effectively authorized for all time by an old memoranda of understanding agreed to by the BLM and the state of Wyoming such that no new environmental impacts analysis could be required.

“The result of this lawsuit was a mixed bag, but most importantly elk continue to be crowded together on feed grounds each winter in western Wyoming,” said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who represented conservation groups in the suit. “We will continue to pursue reform of the feed ground system in order to avoid subjecting Yellowstone’s prized elk to a chronic wasting disease disaster.”

Earthjustice represented the Greater Yellowstone Coalition,  Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, and Wyoming Outdoor Council in this case.

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