The U.S. Forest Service must conduct environmental analyses for two improperly permitted elk feedgrounds in Bridger-Teton National Forest, a federal judge ruled Tuesday. The decision was a win for conservation groups challenging the permitting process.
Western Watersheds Project, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, the Sierra Club and the Gallatin Wildlife Association argued successfully that the Forest Service had failed to account for the harmful effects of feedgrounds, particularly increased transmission risk of chronic wasting disease. The incurable neurological disease is actively spreading among elk, deer and moose in Wyoming.
“Although [chronic wasting disease] has not yet been detected at a feedground in the [Bridger-Teton National Forest], it has moved steadily across Wyoming and now surrounds the feedgrounds at issue in this case,” Tuesday’s decision, by U.S. District Judge Nancy D. Freudenthal, reads.
Other pathogens, including brucellosis, a bacterial illness that can cause abortions, stillbirths and infertility in infected animals, are also a concern at feedgrounds.
In the case, the conservation groups asked for further analysis of disease transmission and other environmental impacts, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, at the Alkali Creek, Dell Creek and Forest Park feedgrounds. The State of Wyoming, Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and several other hunting groups joined the case to back the Forest Service’s current permitting process.
Freudenthal recognized the plaintiffs’ objections to Alkali Creek and Dell Creek, but found that the current permit for Forest Park was valid, allowing feeding there to continue. The same judge had previously rejected Forest Service permits at Alkali Creek in 2018.
Elk feedgrounds were introduced a century ago in Wyoming and surrounding states to reduce grazing competition on ranchlands and help elk survive tough winters. They’ve since been eliminated in most states, but 23 remain in Wyoming.
Feedgrounds “continue to serve as a refuge during harsh winter weather and are critical to elk herd’s health and survivability,” the Outfitters and Guides Association wrote in a November Facebook post criticizing legal challenges to elk feeding.
But the spread of disease among densely congregated elk has continued to draw criticism from environmental groups and wildlife biologists.
“I don’t know how any biologist could look at a feedground and determine that it is not going to have significant impacts on the ecosystem if it continues to operate,” said Kristin Combs, executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. “There’s nothing to back up any kind of argument that continued feeding is recommended.”
While hunters have argued that the loss of feedgrounds would harm elk populations and reduce hunting opportunities in Wyoming, the conservation groups opposing permitting of feedgrounds have pointed to the ongoing success of elk populations without winter feeding in states like Colorado, Montana and Idaho, where winters are just as harsh. They’re hoping the Forest Service’s additional review will conclude with an obvious path forward.
“We’ll hope that the environmental analysis is thorough, and it will lead to the very logical conclusion that we need to phase these feedgrounds out,” said Connie Wilbert, director of the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club.
The Forest Service was not available to comment for this story. It has 60 days to appeal Freudenthal’s decision.