A conservation coalition this week called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to end more than a decade of delay in issuing a plan to phase out winter-time supplemental feeding of elk at the Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge. The practice threatens to worsen the spread of wildlife diseases — including lethal chronic wasting disease, which was detected for the first time late last month in the Jackson Hole area.
In a letter sent Tuesday from Earthjustice on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Refuge Association, and the Sierra Club, the organizations urged FWS to promptly issue a feeding phase-out plan that was promised by the agency in 2008, but has been held up for more than 10 years due to wrangling between federal and Wyoming officials.
While delay has mounted, chronic wasting disease (CWD) — the elk version of “mad cow disease” — has crept ever closer to the Refuge. A slow, debilitating, and inevitably fatal illness, chronic wasting disease assaults the central nervous systems of elk, deer, and moose, resulting in brain lesions, behavioral changes, a loss of body condition, and ultimately death.
Scientists predict that CWD would spread rapidly among elk crowded along feedlines, and widespread infection would also contaminate Refuge soils and vegetation where disease materials would persist to infect additional animals for years. The CWD threat reached a new level of urgency last month with the discovery of a mule deer infected with the always-lethal disease in Grand Teton National Park, which is adjacent to the Refuge.
An Opportunity To End Artificial Feeding
Most recent winters have seen more than 8,000 elk crowded on Refuge feedlines, where they consume alfalfa pellets that FWS provides to reduce over-winter mortality. But last year, for the first time in decades, FWS took advantage of mild winter conditions to forego feeding elk on the Refuge, demonstrating that elk in the Jackson Hole area can survive the winter without supplemental feeding. Unfortunately, there is no assurance that FWS will forego feeding of elk this winter or in future years.
“Last winter’s experience shows that we have an opportunity to reduce the threat of wildlife disease on the National Elk Refuge before chronic wasting disease sweeps through the elk population and infects the very soils of the Refuge itself,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “But the Service needs a feeding phase-out plan that can succeed every winter, not just during mild conditions. The time is now for the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue and implement its long-overdue plan.”
“The discovery of CWD in wildlife in Grand Teton National Park should be a wake-up call to the Fish and Wildlife Service that they have to change the way they manage wildlife on the adjoining world-renowned National Elk Refuge,” said Lloyd Dorsey, conservation program manager for Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, based in Jackson Hole. “The status quo will inevitably lead to a wildlife disease catastrophe.”
“We were very encouraged last year when the USFWS did not do supplemental feeding at the National Elk Refuge,” said Geoffrey Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “There is no safe way to continue winter feeding of elk. The USFWS needs to permanently discontinue feeding now since chronic wasting disease has been detected in Jackson Hole.”
“The thousands of elk that use the National Elk Refuge deserve our prompt response to the threat of chronic wasting disease,” said Peter Nelson, director of federal lands for Defenders of Wildlife. “We urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to take the necessary steps to reduce risks to these animals and maintain the integrity of the Refuge. Any further delay would be completely irresponsible.”
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceElk in the National Elk Refuge crowd together for artificial feeding by tractor feeder.
- Terry Kreeger / Wyoming Fish and Game DepartmentAn elk infected with chronic wasting disease. Always fatal, chronic wasting disease assaults the central nervous systems of elk, deer, and moose, resulting in brain lesions, behavioral changes, a loss of body condition, and ultimately death.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceElk crowd together along artificial feedlines in the National Elk Refuge.
A Ten-Year-Old Promise Left Hanging
In 2007, FWS issued a plan promising that within a year the agency would offer a blueprint for phasing out the winter-feeding program over time. Reviewing that plan, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in 2011 that “[t]here is no doubt that unmitigated continuation of supplemental feeding would undermine the conservation purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” Yet to this day, FWS has still not released the feeding phase-out plan that was promised for release in 2008.
Meanwhile, CWD has now been detected in close proximity to the National Elk Refuge in Grand Teton National Park, where Wyoming officials announced on November 21, 2018 that a mule deer struck by a car was infected with the disease. This detection marked the first time that CWD has been detected in Jackson Hole itself. FWS has offered no indication of how it intends to manage supplemental feeding on the Refuge this winter in light of the new urgency of the CWD threat in Jackson Hole.
Winter-time feeding of elk on the National Elk Refuge began in 1912 as a means of sustaining elk through the winter season and resolving conflicts with ranchers feeding livestock. More than a century later, the concentration of elk on Refuge feed lines has led to the degradation of habitat and prevents the restoration of historic elk migration patterns in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. More significantly, the unnaturally high concentrations of elk have led to a high prevalence of diseases such as brucellosis and scabies, and a significantly increased threat of an outbreak of lethal chronic wasting disease.