Imagine taking a horse-drawn sleigh ride among an elk herd numbering in the thousands. At the National Elk Refuge, such an adventure is available to winter visitors from mid-December through early April. (These) rides are the most popular winter activity, allowing riders a unique wildlife viewing experience and an incredible opportunity for photography
That’s how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website touts the National Elk Refuge outside Jackson, Wyo. Up to 7,000 elk spend winters on the refuge, munching alfalfa pellets and thrilling visitors, who come within yards of the majestic creatures during sleigh rides.
In four dozen other feedgrounds scattered across five Western states, roughly 32,000 elk get free winter rations, courtesy of taxpayers. But crowding that many ungulates into a relatively small area provides opportunities not only for amazing photos, but also for the spread of all sorts of diseases.
Conservationists have been warning of the danger for decades. Back in 1994, the Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Committee reported, “The evidence is overwhelming that winter feeding of elk has proven to perpetuate and enhance the spread of diseases, especially brucellosis. Once certain contagious diseases become endemic within a population of elk, bison, or other wildlife, they become very difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate.” A 2002 HCN story noted that, “Brucellosis (a disease that causes ungulates to abort) 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.”
Now, Bruce Smith, a retired FWS biologist who’s studied the artificial-feeding issue for many years, has published a peer-reviewed paper in The Wildlife Professional looking at the potential of a deadly, highly contagious neurological disorder, chronic wasting disease (CWD), to spread through elk populations in feedgrounds. His conclusion is clear: “Dismantling feedgrounds will limit prevalences, mortality, and the costs of managing CWD—and the next emerging disease.”
But “dismantling feedgrounds” is unlikely to happen, as Smith notes, no matter how beneficial such a move might be. Authorities aren’t currently considering phasing out any of the artificial-feeding programs. Smith describes the complex factors that keep them open:
“Habituating elk to feedgrounds can be viewed as a means of conflict resolution spawned by public pressure rather than decision-making seated in scientific principle and sustainable resource management policy. Administrators may see winter feeding as the least painful remedy producing immediate results to appease agricultural interests that desire rapid resolution to crop damage, and pro-wildlife constituencies that oppose reductions in elk densities despite dwindling habitat and human-wildlife conflict.”
When feedgrounds were first established, many in the early part of the 20th century, they seemed like a logical response to an increasing human population. In Wyoming, as ranchers and settlers moved in, they claimed prime elk habitat for their horses and cattle. Elk returning to winter range found haystacks instead of meadows, and stayed to eat. A 2002 HCN story reported:
"’Ranchers were screaming. Elk were starving,’ Bernie Holz, the state's wildlife supervisor for the region, 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 Jackson feedground, established in 1912, has cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over the years. It’s had some beneficial effects – elk have done so well there that they’ve been used to restock other herds in the U.S. and Canada, ranchers lose much less hay now, and the refuge shelters a host of other wildlife species, such as moose, bighorn sheep, trumpeter swans and osprey.
But as many as one-third of the elk on the National Elk Refuge carry brucellosis, which spreads readily to cattle and causes major economic loss to ranchers. Other states that rely on natural habitat for elk have almost no incidence of brucellosis. Feedground elk have shown evidence of scabies, lice and hoof rot as well. Observers also worry about the threat of bovine tuberculosis, a deadly disease that afflicts many species of mammals.
And then there’s the specter of chronic wasting disease, which has been spreading relentlessly through the West’s deer, elk and moose populations since the 1980s. Earlier this fall, we reported on this “slow motion” epidemic:
“… It has spread to 19 states and in Wyoming, close to 40 percent of deer in the eastern half of the state are infected, up from 15 percent in 1997. ... (Researchers) say they’re finally getting to a point where they can document how CWD slowly destroys an entire population, not just individuals. The preliminary findings aren’t good: (one) herd’s size has been cut in half in the past 12 years, and the drop seems to be related to CWD-induced deaths, says Melia DeVivo, a PhD student at University of Wyoming.”
There are no vaccines for CWD, and no cure. It spreads through urine, feces, saliva and carcass tissues, and binds to clay particles, accumulating in the soil. That’s a scary prospect at a feedground, where animals congregate in large numbers. The disease has already infected up to 60 percent of the elk on some game farms.
As Smith wrote in an editorial in HCN last year,
“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.”
Ditching feedgrounds, Smith says, “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.”
Yeah, it might be fun to see a five-point bull elk up close from a horsedrawn sleigh as it chomps on feed pellets. But personally, I’d rather train my binoculars on a healthy one out browsing in the wild.
Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News.