Too many elk and not enough tough love

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.