JACKSON — The state of Wyoming is convening citizens, outfitters, activists and experts to develop recommendations on how to deal with human-fed, artificially concentrated elk herds that may soon face a devastating disease.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department announced this week that it will assemble stakeholder groups to advise the agency on managing elk feedgrounds in relation to chronic wasting disease. Exactly what the groups will look like and when they’ll come together is still hazy, but Game and Fish spokesman Mark Gocke anticipates they will resemble similar state-organized stakeholder groups that developed advice for mule deer and sage grouse.
“This is another way for us to gather input and feedback and help us make decisions,” Gocke said. “This topic of elk feedgrounds and chronic wasting disease, there are no easy answers and there are no quick fixes. It’s a complicated issue and one that we feel warrants extra work on everyone’s part.
“There may be ideas out there that we’re not thinking of,” he added. “That’s one of the points of doing this.”
Chronic wasting disease is an incurable, always-fatal, degenerative neurological disorder known to occur in mule deer that live in all of the counties that host Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds: Sublette, Lincoln and Teton. Its arrival in Jackson Hole is the most recent, being officially detected for the first time in November in a road-killed mule deer buck near Kelly. While CWD has so far stayed confined to deer and moose in the feedground region, its crossover to elk is possible at any time.
The century-old practice of winter elk feeding is intended to prevent starvation, keep wapiti off cattle feedlines and prop up elk populations in an area where winter range is limited and historic migrations have been severed and forgotten. But outside Wyoming, feeding belies best management practices and is considered antiquated and ecologically pernicious, spreading disease and short-stopping migrations. The 20,000 or so elk that gather annually on the National Elk Refuge and Game and Fish’s 22 feedgrounds is by far the largest congregation of fed, wild elk remaining in the world.
Some conservationists and biologists have called for phasing out elk feeding in northwestern Wyoming altogether, and say continuing the practice with CWD on the landscape could be a perilous mistake. Feeding, however, is entrenched and has maintained considerable support from the ranching and hunting communities that say worries about CWD’s impacts are overblown.
The Game and Fish stakeholder groups’ tall task will be to come up with recommendations that appease both parties.
The structure of the groups, Gocke said, is still on the drawing board, but he anticipated that they’ll be diverse and a “representative cross-section of local communities.” The meetings will likely be open to the public, he said.
Funding for the extra staff time and facilitation is not yet secured. Precisely what the groups will look like has also not been decided. A statewide CWD stakeholder group will assemble, and there was a thought to have a subcommittee represent each of the three feedground-zone counties — though that, too, is up in the air.