Conservationists Challenge Weak Government Response to Urgent Wildlife Disease Threat at National Elk Refuge

Lawsuit targets new plan that leaves elk vulnerable to chronic wasting disease


Timothy Preso, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699

Katie Arberg, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-0259

Connie Wilbert, Sierra Club, (307) 460-8046

Geoffrey Haskett, National Wildlife Refuge Association, (202) 417-3803

A conservation coalition today filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to challenge the agency’s weak new plan to phase down elk feeding on the Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge, citing the plan’s inadequate response to the urgent threat of a chronic wasting disease outbreak among the Refuge elk population. Wildlife officials detected chronic wasting disease in Jackson Hole for the first time in November 2018, and biologists believe it is inevitable that the disease will eventually enter the Refuge, where it threatens to spread widely among elk densely congregated on winter feedlines and infect the Refuge environment itself with contagious disease materials.

“The Service has failed to meet the challenge of this key moment when we still have an opportunity to take some preemptive action to prevent the worst consequences of chronic wasting disease in Jackson Hole,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “The National Elk Refuge is supposed to sustain healthy populations of native wildlife, not spread infection of lethal disease.”

The lawsuit challenges a FWS “Step-Down Plan” issued on December 31, 2019 that proposes a “principal strategy” of delaying the onset of winter feeding each year to teach a new generation of elk to look elsewhere than the Refuge for winter forage. But the new plan delayed implementation of that strategy for at least two years in response to objections from the State of Wyoming, which for decades has opposed changes to the elk-feeding program.

Recognizing the wildlife disease threat posed by the Refuge’s winter elk-feeding program, FWS promised to issue the Step-Down Plan by 2008, but delayed for more than ten years due to disagreement between federal and Wyoming officials. FWS’s delay in issuing the Step-Down Plan ended only after conservationists sued the agency in March 2019 to demand release of the long-overdue plan after chronic wasting disease was confirmed in Jackson Hole. 

As with that earlier lawsuit, Earthjustice filed today’s lawsuit on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Refuge Association. The lawsuit charges, among other things, that FWS’s Step-Down Plan ignores advice the agency received from its own former Chief of Wildlife Health, Dr. Thomas Roffe, who warned FWS that even full implementation of the new “Step-Down Plan” “still leaves a substantial risk of catastrophic disease propagation” in the Jackson elk herd.

“The detection of chronic wasting disease on the doorstep of the National Elk Refuge should be setting off alarm bells for everyone who treasures the Refuge and its wildlife,” said Pete Nelson, director of federal lands for Defenders of Wildlife. “We cannot afford further delay from the Service in addressing this existential threat to the Refuge. It is crucial that we take decisive action, to protect elk and the integrity of the refuge now, before it is too late.”

“As long as feeding continues as usual, risk to the Greater Yellowstone region will increase,” said Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter. “Chronic wasting disease is already infecting wildlife in Jackson Hole. We cannot afford to wait any longer, let alone two or more years, before even starting to encourage elk to relearn their natural winter foraging behaviors and reduce the threat that this disease will mushroom into an all-out epidemic.”

“It is long past time for the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a real plan with specific steps and a reasonable time frame to implement phasing out feeding the elk at the refuge,” said Geoffrey Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “Chronic wasting disease just keeps getting closer and this has gone on far too long.”

Read the complaint.

Read the review of the Step-Down Plan 


Most recent winters have seen more than 8,000 elk crowded on Refuge feedlines, where they consume alfalfa pellets that FWS provides. In 2007, FWS issued a plan promising that within a year the agency would release a “Step-Down Plan” to provide a blueprint for phasing out the winter-feeding program in response to wildlife disease concerns. Reviewing that 2007 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” because the feeding program facilitates the spread of wildlife disease.

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 always death. Scientists predict that chronic wasting disease will spread rapidly among elk crowded along feedlines, and widespread infection will also contaminate Refuge soils and vegetation where disease materials would persist to infect more animals for years. Although transmission of the disease to humans has not been documented, in February, the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota warned, “It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead.”

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 other diseases including brucellosis and scabies, and a significantly increased threat of an outbreak of lethal chronic wasting disease.

An elk in winter.
The concentration of elk on Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge feedlines has led to the degradation of habitat and prevents the restoration of historic elk migration patterns in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. (iStockphoto)

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