In western Wyoming, feeding elk seems as normal as long winters, Grand Teton views and oil and gas wells. But of the 1 million elk that now roam North America, only 3 percent are fed by government employees, and three-fourths of those animals are fed in Wyoming at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, or at 22 state-operated feed grounds.
Given that the elk population is already far above Wyoming's statewide population objective, conservationists increasingly question the wisdom of feeding them. The original purpose of feeding the elk, which Wyoming began doing in 1909, was a noble one. Continental elk populations had plummeted from 10 million or more to about 50,000 around the turn of the 20th Century, with most clustered in the Yellowstone Park-Jackson Hole region. As conservation programs recovered populations, justifications for continued elk feeding morphed to boosting numbers for local economies and keeping elk separated from livestock.
As far back as 1951, biologist Olaus Murie wrote in The Elk of North America about the "problem with the elk," which he was tasked to solve in Wyoming. A review of the literature since published by state, federal and independent scientists reveals that the "problem" remains the same: Too many elk are maintained on too little habitat.
Meanwhile, state and federal agencies in Wyoming continue to cope with the consequences rather than addressing the root problem. That approach has provided damage control and placated influential constituencies, while perpetuating an outdated management system that no longer wisely serves the public's elk and other wildlife.
Among the outcomes of this system are debilitating and deadly diseases, including scabies, foot rot, hemorrhagic septicemia, and brucellosis. Every year, some 23,000 elk are fed in crowded conditions, a situation that also readily provokes outbreaks of brucellosis. The disease is then transmitted to cattle, triggering repeated losses of Wyoming's brucellosis-free status.
Until now, diseased elk and recurring brucellosis in cattle may have been considered acceptable tradeoffs for the chance to claim the largest elk herd in the world. But that's likely to change. The spread of chronic wasting disease, or CWD, a disease that is 100 percent fatal to deer, elk and moose, may eventually require dispersing elk off the feed grounds, resulting in smaller herds. Leading CWD scientists Mike Miller and Elizabeth Williams note that high animal densities and feeding programs increase the risk of CWD amplification (increased disease prevalence) by promoting direct and indirect (environmental contamination) routes of disease transmission. Because the infectious agent that causes CWD is resistant to environmental and chemical degradation, it will continue to accumulate on feed grounds where elk congregate, jam-packed, half the year.
From a small nexus in southeast Wyoming and northeast Colorado three decades ago, CWD has already spread to Canada and 20 states, including half of Wyoming. So far, it has not reached Wyoming's feed-ground elk. Where animals are dispersed across winter ranges in Wyoming and Colorado, less than 10 percent of elk have become infected. But on game farms and in research facilities, the nearest surrogates to Wyoming's feed grounds, the disease has proven devastating.
If the worst should happen, feed grounds will create 23 hotspots for the spread of CWD throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where some 200,000 elk, moose, and deer -- plus adjacent herds in Idaho and Montana -- are at risk.
Yet the state of Wyoming and federal resource agencies have shown little interest in acting to reduce this risk, even though science and logic advocate returning Jackson Hole's treasured elk to a free-ranging herd that can withstand the assault of CWD or the next emerging disease, whatever it might be.
Of the alternatives for safeguarding the elk and all the ecological, economic, and social benefits they provide, the most realistic choice is allowing an unfed, free-ranging herd to sustain itself on range that is 98 percent in public ownership. While a smaller elk herd may be unacceptable to some people, I've concluded that this is far preferable to an overstocked range riddled with diseased and dying animals.
Embarking on this path will not only diminish disease threats, but remedy other problems that are the consequences of an overstocked range, including damaged wildlife habitats, declining biodiversity, controversial elk hunts and citizen-financed feeding programs.
Besides science and logic, a federal court decision now backs a change in elk management policy. In a case brought by five conservation organizations, a District of Columbia appellate court ruled August 2011 that winter-feeding on the National Elk Refuge is inconsistent with law. Without more delay, it is time for the state and federal agencies charged with stewarding the public's wildlife and wildlands to make this change happen.
Bruce Smith is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). His new book, Where Elk Roam: Conservation and Biopolitics of Our National Elk Herd, is based on his 30 years as a wildlife scientist and manager, including 22 years as the National Elk Refuge biologist.