JACKSON, Wyo. - Up on the Gros Ventre Range southeast of town, winter snow piles deep and lasts well into spring, making forage hard to find for herds of wild elk. So for decades the state of Wyoming has supplemented their diet with hay.

This winter's feeding of elk is winding down, but on the Gros Ventre - French for "big stomach" - four conservation groups want to withdraw the handout for good.

In time, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Wyoming Wildlife Federation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative would like to phase out more of the 23 feedgrounds clustered in northwest Wyoming.

They see the feedgrounds as expensive breeding grounds for disease, and potential triggers for catastrophe.

"It's a ticking time bomb," says Tory Taylor, an executive board member of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. "We've always characterized feedlots as living petri dishes. They spread any disease that gets into them."

This corner of Wyoming has become the nation's main reservoir of brucellosis. The disease causes pregnant elk, cattle and bison - including bison in Yellowstone National Park - to abort calves. And the feedgrounds seem to promote the disease among the animals that use them.

The conservation groups also believe the feedgrounds could cause an outbreak of chronic wasting disease, which increasingly shows up in elk and deer in surrounding states, and is often linked to game farms. Feedgrounds encourage conditions of animal crowding that are similar to game farms, but without fences.

"Wyoming is the only state that doesn't have game farms," says Meredith Taylor, Tory's wife and a field director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "(The Wyoming Game and Fish Department) led the charge against game farms in this state, to their credit, and here they are sanctioning these feedlots. We stand to lose a huge wildlife resource in the West by concentrating animals on these feeding operations."

The Taylors call them "feedlots"; the state calls them "feedgrounds." One term connotes commercial animal husbandry; the other, a beneficial open range. The difference in vision is expressed around the West: Oregon, Washington and Idaho have feedgrounds, for example, but in Montana and Colorado, feeding big game for the most part is illegal.

Todd Malmsbury, chief of information for Colorado's Division of Wildlife, cites the same problems with feeding that the Taylors do: It disrupts elk grazing habits and migration, and animals that share feed can also share saliva, urine and feces.

"When I drop my five-year-old off at daycare, if one of the kids has a cold, they all have it," Malmsbury says. "It's the same situation."

Making elk dependent

The Wyoming feedgrounds habit began nearly a hundred years ago, as ranchers settled in the Jackson-Pinedale region. Elk herds that had migrated every fall from the mountains to the lower elevations in southwest Wyoming suddenly discovered local ranchers feeding horses and cattle with haystacks. So the elk - often several thousand at a time - stopped in for a bite.

Loitering at high elevations around the ranchers' haystacks, the elk were "short-stopped" until the onset of winter snow made it impossible to continue their migration, explains Bernie Holz, the state's wildlife supervisor for the region. The snow also buried their natural mountain forage, something that didn't happen on Wyoming's windswept plains. The elk became dependent on the haystacks.

"Ranchers were screaming. Elk were starving," Holz says. Since elk are managed by the state, ranchers pushed for a law requiring the state to reimburse them for lost hay. The state decided it would be cheaper and simpler to take direct responsibility for feeding, and over time, says Holz, "We had to keep feeding more and more."

The state began feeding elk to prevent damage to ranches as early as 1908. The most famous feedground, the National Elk Refuge north of Jackson, started in 1912. The state program increased to 56 feeding sites, then downsized to 22, concentrated where elk use of ranches was heaviest.

The feedgrounds are on private, federal and state land in the Jackson-Pinedale region; most of the hay is bought from local ranchers, and it adds up. In 2000, the bill for running the feedgrounds was $1.2 million, plus several hundred thousand dollars more for associated expenses. Hunters and anglers pay most of it with license fees funneled through Wyoming Game and Fish.

Other costs are harder to quantify. Concentrating thousands of elk on limited habitat can hurt less economically valuable species, such as migratory songbirds, whose populations are down as the elk crowd into and strip down aspen, cottonwood and willows.

About 30,000 elk live in the Jackson-Pinedale region now; about 22,000 of them depend on the feedgrounds during the winter.

The ones that are fed are markedly less healthy. Fully a third of the elk on the state's feedgrounds test positive for exposure to brucellosis, despite an ongoing vaccination campaign * scientists and wildlife agents shooting "bio-bullets" deep into the animals' muscles. Roughly 300 to 500 elk calves are lost each year to brucellosis on the state and federal feedgrounds, according to Game and Fish annual reports.

Yet brucellosis is virtually non-existent in Wyoming elk that have never used feedgrounds. In fact, the farther elk are from feedgrounds, the better their rate of calf survival.

"The bottom line on elk is, if they're not fed and disperse freely, brucellosis will go away," Tory Taylor says.

Most of the war against brucellosis targets Yellowstone Park bison, which are rounded up with helicopters and executed to stop any spread of the disease into Montana. Few people realize that "biologically, the biggest problem" with brucellosis is on the feedgrounds, says Tom Roffe, a federal wildlife veterinarian who has studied brucellosis in the park and the national refuge for years.

About 600 bison live on one feedground, the National Elk Refuge, and they also carry brucellosis, without much contact with the several thousand bison in the park, Roffe says. Add the feedgrounds' brucellosis-ridden elk herds, and that's many times more potential carriers spread over a larger area, compared to the park, he says.

The possibility that the feedgrounds could also encourage the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in elk and deer alarms the conservationists. "We know that wasting disease travels by bodily fluids, and anytime you have animals nose to nose, it means higher transmission rates," says Meredith Taylor.

Other states have slaughtered thousands of elk and deer in game farms and in the wild trying to stop the spread of CWD, which kills animals by rotting their brains (HCN, 4/15/02: Elk and deer disease could waste Western Slope). In southern Wyoming, wild deer herds have been infected with CWD for three decades without its becoming an epidemic. So far, CWD hasn't been detected on the feedgrounds, but if it were brought there by an infected animal, it would spread rapidly, says Walt Cook, a wildlife veterinarian with Wyoming Game and Fish.

Crash predicted

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is rethinking how the national refuge is run, including feeding and disease issues, and is planning to release a draft environmental impact statement in February 2003.

Phasing out the state and federal feedgrounds would raise a new set of problems.

For one, the elk would have a difficult time resuming their historic migration. In addition to modern developments such as highways, dams, motor vehicle traffic, ranches and winter cattle feeding, many of the areas where elk used to migrate are now in full-field oil and gas development, Holz says. Too, if elk did make it to the southern desert, they'd compete with domestic livestock for forage there.

The conservation groups, calling their strategy "Restoring Wild Patterns," want migration corridors to be preserved and restored with a mix of conservation easements, county land-use plans, and oil and gas mitigation measures.

Some elk can find enough forage in the mountains to winter over, the groups believe. They propose a gradual test: The three feedgrounds on the Gros Ventre - a wide-open, 6,500-foot elevation valley of sagebrush grasslands, with the Gros Ventre River meandering down the middle - should be eliminated first, says Meredith Taylor, because the valley has more forage than elsewhere in the region. Efforts would be made to improve forage around all the feedground sites.

But habitat improvements have limited potential, Holz says. With the help of the U.S. Forest Service and Grand Teton National Park, the state has already improved tens of thousands of acres of habitat in western Wyoming, mainly through prescribed burns. The fires have re-started willows and aspen stands, an important food source in fall and winter, and helped sagebrush grasslands green up earlier in the spring. As a result, more elk are living on native range later into winter - but not all winter, Holz says.

"You can create as much winter range as you want, but if you dump five feet of snow on it, it's no longer a winter range."

Biologist Alan Christensen, formerly with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, agrees. He's among many wildlife experts who say eliminating feedgrounds would mean an elk population crash, perhaps to one half or even one-quarter of the current size.

"To make a decision to phase out the feedgrounds, particularly in a short period of time ... you're going to end up with a smaller population," Christensen says. And with smaller numbers come political problems. "People want to see elk, and hunters want to have elk to hunt."

Where are the hunters?

The conservation groups say the public is ready to accept a reduction in elk for a more natural situation. State officials just "don't have the political will to carry this forward," says Meredith Taylor. "Choose your allies. Do the right thing, and take advantage of the conservation hunters."

Yet even though Tory Taylor is involved in leading the state's largest and oldest hunting and fishing organization - the Wyoming Wildlife Federation has more than 5,000 members - the so-called conservation hunters seem to keep a low profile.

The conservationists "allude to the notion that there are a lot of hunters interested in conservation, but they're not running around advocating half the number of elk. They'd be murdered in their sleep," Holz says.

In the early 1980s, when elk populations statewide were reduced by increased hunter harvests, biologists were "hung in effigy in the public square," says Harry Harju, assistant chief of the state's wildlife division.

Ken Cricton, president of the Wyoming Hunters Association, also isn't aware of a groundswell from conservation hunters. His group is circulating petitions that support the state-run feedgrounds. In a year, the petitioners have gathered 5,000 signatures, though many signers live out-of-state.

"Everyone I've talked to can't believe that they'd stop the feeding," Cricton says. "The elk would starve," just as in the early 1900s.

The policymakers who call the shots also support the feedgrounds. Wyoming Game and Fish Commission President Gary Lundvall says, "I think the commission is unanimous in that regard."

"But why are we protecting a management direction that is destructive to the very species we're trying to manage?" wonders Meredith Taylor. "Feedgrounds are undermining the productivity of our elk herds and setting them up for collapse. That collapse can come either in the form of a die-off or an agency-sanctioned kill-off. Either way, the waste is huge."

 

Karen Mockler, a former HCN intern, now writes from Cody, Wyoming.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Wyoming Wildlife Federation, in Cheyenne, 307/637-5433;
  • Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Bernie Holz, regional wildlife supervisor in Pinedale, 307/367-4353;
  • Ken Cricton, Wyoming Hunters Association, in Riverton, 307/867-0784.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Karen Mockler