Karen Mockler's recent report, "Are Wyoming's elk feedgrounds a hotbed of disease?" (HCN, 4/29/02: Are Wyoming's elk feedgrounds a hotbed of disease?), reminded me again of journalism's greatest weaknesses: No matter how good the report is, there are never enough column inches to tell the whole story, and sometimes crucial facts fall through the cracks.
Her report gives the untrue impression that conservationists, by calling for the phaseout of elk feedgrounds - what I call elk ghettos - to combat disease, would ruthlessly force a drastic reduction of elk numbers.
Wyoming conservationists have never advocated simply closing ghetto-feedgrounds and letting elk starve by the thousands. This claim is a political branding iron that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) and livestock and big-game outfitting organizations have flamed into the public's sensitive hide to excite opposition to the strategy, particularly among hunters.
The Yellowstone country is desperately sick. It is we who have made it sick * not wildlife. Yet, we can heal it partially by how we manage wildlife. Therefore, in the case of elk, along with ghetto closures, we propose a drastic reduction of elk densities by widely distributing elk across the landscape to reduce the risk of disease transmission as well as elk damage to other wildlife and plant communities. Reducing densities is far different from reducing raw numbers.
The necessary, expensive, and admittedly politically difficult factor is acquiring, developing and protecting habitat at the landscape scale, chiefly winter range and migration corridors, so that elk have lots of places to go and ways to get there. We are convinced expanding habitat is possible, so the expense and the critics' vituperation will be worth it. The money's certainly there. Only political vision and courage are lacking.
In embryo, this strategy is at work east of the Continental Divide in the upper country of the Wind River watershed, where I live. Between 1941 and 1991, when the WGFD was still willing to stand up to the livestock industry's paranoia over government buying marginal land out of agricultural production and devoting it to wildlife, the agency purchased thousands of acres of winter range from willing, prudent ranchers. The East Fork winter range now encompasses almost 55,000 acres - twice as much as the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole.
In 2002, the only disease in Wind River elk, brucellosis, comes only with a few ghetto elk that migrate across the divide. Elk that remain in the watershed are healthy because their densities are so low, especially on winter range. When elk aren't fed in winter, all evidence indicates that brucellosis will burn itself out.
At the same time, the Wind River herd of 7,000 is the largest free-ranging herd in Wyoming. So much for numbers.
Unfortunately, the WGFD doesn't talk much about the Wind River country anymore, and hardly listens to citizens. It listens only to industry and the politicians who represent industry. That's the tragedy of Wyoming's elk ghettos. The WGFD acts like a jacklit deer calmly awaiting the poacher's blast.