Too many elk and not enough tough love

by Jeff Welsch

I took my first sleigh ride around the National Elk Refuge recently, and after observing the artificial-feed buffet for elk, the calf hoof-rot and all the willows nibbled to the nubs, all I could think was: “I have a feeling we’re not in Wyoming anymore.”

Isn’t Wyoming supposed to be the state where the federal government is as welcome as knapweed? Where, even in trendy Jackson, the fittest survive and the rest move back to Massachusetts?

Yet there on the snowy plains of Jackson Hole -- as far as the eye could see -- were thousands upon thousands of elk queued up at the public trough as if in a Great Depression bread line. Call it the National Elk Soup Kitchen.

At first glance, I admit, it seemed a grand spectacle. Who wouldn’t be impressed by so many of these iconic symbols of the American frontier, their stately antlers outlined against the purple-and-white majesty of the rugged Gros Ventres? Where else can a visitor get so up-close and personal with wild animals?

Well, yes. A zoo.

The refuge has become as natural as Botox and about as Wyoming as, well, Washington, D.C. We can try insisting on a different image, but when the animals are contained on one side by a tall fence, and when they’re all infested with lice and scabies and infected with disease, and when Uncle Sam is the one ringing the dinner bell, it takes some serious spin-doctoring to argue that this is anything more than ungulate welfare.

To be fair, this annual rite was born in part from yet another Wyoming trait: Big-heartedness. A century ago, brutal winter weather, livestock expansion and development pushed these creatures perilously close to extinction in Jackson Hole. Local folks stepped in to prevent a tragedy.

It was compassionate conservatism before the term became a hollow talking point, the New Deal before it was a twinkle in FDR’s monocle.

Like the New Deal, the feed ground outlived its usefulness. Elk are now abundant across the West and far too abundant in Jackson Hole. Where once feeding had been a necessary sustenance tool, it is now a crutch with harmful consequences. Eventually, it might even doom the herd.

The scabies and lice scars, both scruffy symptoms of the elk’s crowded confines, are gnarly enough, but brucellosis is about 15 times more prevalent in Jackson Hole’s herd than in truly wild herds. And the inability of some calves to walk due to hoof rot -- courtesy of their daily wallowing in mud and feces -- is a sad spectacle, though perhaps not to the six coyotes waiting for a safe moment to join the buffet line. If this isn’t convincing enough evidence that the cost of feed grounds surely outweighs the few benefits for the elk and taxpayer, there’s the chilling prospect of chronic wasting disease at the refuge’s doorstep.

To our sleigh guide’s credit, he acknowledged the challenges facing not only the Elk Refuge but also the other feed grounds dotting western Wyoming. Regardless of one’s position on the issue, he emphasized, a love for elk is a unifying theme. But we just might be loving our elk to death.

As our sleigh pointed back to the highway, I thought about two dozen renegade elk I’d seen a day earlier along the Hoback River. The small herd had hopped off the welfare rolls and was gainfully employed grazing on natural grasses. I contemplated how they migrate as nature programmed them, the strong fending off diseases and the weak providing meals for predators. More telling was how it felt watching them high on a ridge. Contrary to the refuge, where the elk are de facto domesticated for half the year, these Hoback ungulates were wild, and seeing them was a treat.

Surely, I reasoned, a sleigh ride through healthy willow and cottonwood thickets with a chance of spotting truly wild elk, wolves, moose, bison and other such native wildlife would be more appealing than navigating this artificial wilderness we call the National Elk Refuge. Rugged individualists all, those elk above the Hoback River were relying on their wits, savvy and strength to succeed in a vast land of opportunity.

No government handouts wanted, thank you. Now that, Toto, is the Wyoming I know and love.

Jeff Welsch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the new communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Jackson, Wyoming.

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