For more than 100 years, elk have flowed out of the mountains surrounding western Wyoming and onto feedgrounds where workers spend each winter tossing hay out of trailers for food.
Feedgrounds started as a way to prevent mass starvation in elk during hard winters as human development encroached on critical winter habitat. They continue as a way to maintain elk numbers in spite of dwindling habitat, keep elk out of cattle hay stacks, and prevent the spread of diseases like brucellosis from elk to cattle.
But for the past decade, they’ve faced increasing skepticism as experts have watched chronic wasting disease march across the state. An outbreak of the always-fatal disease on the feedgrounds, biologists warn, could prove dire to Wyoming’s iconic elk herds.
In response to one of Wyoming’s most controversial wildlife issues, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will hold four listening sessions for the public on Dec. 1, 2 and 3 to kick off a broader planning process.
“The issues are very complex. There’s multiple agencies involved that all have different objectives, and we have two competing wildlife diseases and litigation,” said Game and Fish’s director, Brian Nesvik. “There’s a lot to absorb there.”
The four sessions aren’t meant to solve the century-old issue, but are meant to bring everyone to the table. From there, department officials hope to gather ideas from the public and begin producing a long-term plan.
The first elk offered food paid for by the Wyoming Legislature was in 1910 after Jackson resident Stephen Leek began speaking and writing about starving elk. The federal government eventually took over the practice on what would become the National Elk Refuge. In 1929, the state of Wyoming began creating another 22 feedgrounds. Tens of thousands of elk now congregate each winter on the western portion of the state when snow becomes too deep in the higher country. In recent decades they’ve attracted ire for their riskiness and praise for their utility.
Ranchers like Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, say feedgrounds are critical to livestock and robust elk herds, even in the face of chronic wasting disease.
“I understand that there’s challenges, and I’ve sat on the brucellosis task force since its inception,” Sommers said. “I just don’t see the practicality of (closing the feedgrounds). I don’t see how it can be done. How could you eliminate elk feedgrounds, still have elk populations and not comingle elk and cattle?”
Brucellosis – a bacteria that causes cattle to abort – poses real risks to western Wyoming’s livestock industry, Sommers added. If elk weren’t fed in designated locations, they would inevitably end up on cattle feedlines.
Joshua Coursey, president of the Muley Fanatics Foundation, understands the complexities of the feedgrounds. They artificially congregate elk in a way that would increase potential for CWD to spread. But he fears without the feedgrounds, all those elk would turn to valuable mule deer winter range, putting pressure on already struggling herds.
“At the end of the day, they are totally different critters, elk are a grazer and deer are browsers,” he said. “As browsers they have less opportunity for food and it will push them into suboptimum areas and push them into even more of a decline.”
The calls to shut down Wyoming’s feedgrounds have become increasingly strong over the past several decades. Groups like Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates have filed lawsuits as recently as April saying that feeding elk violates environmental laws. One feedground has been effectively closed, only open in case of emergency circumstances.
Montana’s wildlife commission even wrote Wyoming a letter asking the state to stop artificially feeding elk, citing worries that elk would contract CWD on the feedgrounds then spread it north.
The fear of CWD ending up in the feedgrounds and spreading more quickly among congregated animals is real, said Chris Colligan, wildlife program coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
“We have CWD that’s been detected in deer in these herd units in the vicinity of elk feedgrounds, and the window to do something proactively in addressing this before it’s found on an elk feedground is rapidly narrowing,” he said. “I think all constituents in Wyoming would be better served by a proactive approach versus a reactive approach.”
The listening sessions are a good place to start, Colligan said, and he’s hopeful it leads to action.
A plan for the future of the feedgrounds is exactly what the department is looking for out of these sessions, said Brad Hovinga, Game and Fish’s wildlife supervisor in Jackson.
“We want to hear from the public what’s important to them, what the issues are, and what kind of process they would like to see their Game and Fish Department move forward with,” he said.
But first, he said, they want everyone to sit down with all the facts.
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