Feds to reconsider two elk feedgrounds following CWD discoveries

WYOMING -- Following recent discoveries of Chronic Wasting Disease in feedground-supported elk herds, the U.S. Forest Service will conduct a detailed environmental review that could decide the fate of two Wyoming winter feeding operations.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission proposes using Dell Creek Feedground in Sublette County’s Bondurant basin for another “20+ years,” the Bridger-Teton National Forest said in a Nov. 8 notice. The federal agency also will examine a Wyoming plan to continue feeding elk at the Forest Park Feedground in Lincoln County between the Wyoming and Salt River mountain ranges.

It could take three years to complete the environmental review, Gregory Brooks, the acting Big Piney district ranger for the national forest, wrote. He laid out that schedule in a letter granting a one-year permit for Dell Creek, a hastily issued temporary permit made necessary by a lawsuit that revealed no authorization existed for the state to use the federal property.

The temporary Dell Creek permit, approved under rules that required minimal review, could itself be renewed for two more years while the larger evaluation of the two feedgrounds is underway, Brooks wrote. Public comments on the temporary Dell Creek permit underscored worries that artificially concentrating elk at feedgrounds would exacerbate the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease.

“Most public comments were associated with the long-term effects of elk feedgrounds and the potential impacts from CWD,” Brooks wrote. “Next, the Public wants reassurance that the [Forest Service] will complete an [Environmental Impact Statement] with an alternative that includes fading out elk feedgrounds, as directed by the court order” issued as a result of the suit.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department operates 22 elk feedgrounds, all west of the Continental Divide, that support 14,000-20,000 of the state’s 112,000 elk. In addition, the National Elk Refuge supports the bulk of the 11,000-strong Jackson Elk Herd under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s separate supplemental feeding program.

Fourteen of the state feedgrounds are on federal property. Since 2020 CWD has been found in two feedground-supported elk herds that together number about 13,000 animals.

Conservationists who commented on the fast-tracked Dell Creek temporary feedground permit voiced some of their worries about the overall feedground program, a system Game and Fish and Wyoming lawmakers appear determined to continue.

“The Dell Creek FG serves only a small fraction of the elk in the BTNF area,” wrote John Carter, an ecologist with the conservation group Yellowstone to Uintas Connection. “It is timely to close this [feedground] in combination with other actions.”

Western Watersheds Project, an activist group that opposes stock grazing on public land, was blunter.

Federal officials “have used a ‘get out of jail free card’ to exempt the continued permitting of these toxic disease factories from review,” Jonathan Ratner, the group’s Wyoming, Utah and Colorado director, wrote WyoFile. “How many more times does the Forest Service need to lose in court before they stop being the lapdog of the state?”

In 2020 biologists discovered CWD in a hunter-killed elk from the Jackson Herd that largely winters on the National Elk Refuge. This year another hunter-killed elk from a feedground herd — a herd south of Pinedale — tested positive for the incurable malady of the central nervous system, Game and Fish said.

A lymph node sample revealed CWD in a bull elk shot in hunt area 98, where Pinedale Herd elk winter at the Muddy Creek and Scab Creek feedgrounds. Forest Park and Dell Creek are more-or-less between the infected Jackson and Pinedale herds.

Game and Fish operates the feedgrounds to keep elk off cattle feedlines, private property and highways and to grow a surplus for hunters. Game and Fish biologists estimate the population of state feedground elk would decline by 60 to 80 percent without the feeding program.

CWD could diminish elk numbers too. It could infect 12 percent of the Jackson Elk Herd, according to a recent paper that used a model to predict disease spread.

Before reaching that 12-percent level — at only 7-percent prevalence — the Jackson herd would begin to diminish even if there were no hunting of female elk, the research predicted. The implication is that hunting, which includes taking a significant number of female elk, would be deeply affected by feedground CWD.

In authorizing the temporary Dell Creek permit, the Bridger-Teton said adding another year to the 40-plus-year operation “will not reasonably contribute additional positive or negative impacts (including the potential for disease transmission) to wildlife in the project area.” The feedground covers about 35 acres and includes hay storage sheds, corrals and another structure.

Not feeding at Dell Creek this winter could lead to “significant adverse effects to elk and cattle,” including elk deaths and disease transmission, the Forest Service said. The agency “must continue to allow feeding short-term until the EIS determines the appropriate alternative,” Brooks’ notice states.

The Game and Fish Department and Commission are “grateful to the Bridger-Teton National Forest for their partnership to continue elk feedground operations at Dell Creek,” said Rick King, the agency’s chief of wildlife. “This feedground location is crucial to mitigate brucellosis disease concerns and maintain elk populations,” he said in a statement.

But feedgrounds run counter to a goal in the Bridger-Teton’s management plan, which is to help reestablish historic migrations, conservation ecologist Carter countered. His letter — specific to Dell Creek but applicable to all state feedgrounds on the Bridger-Teton — was endorsed by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council.

“This is a good time to allow these [Dell Creek] animals to return to natural function and meet your Forest Plan Goals,” the letter states. “It is highly questionable that [feedgrounds] are reducing, not enhancing disease transmission [among elk] and to livestock,” the letter reads.

Further, the Bridger-Teton “does not cede authority to the state” and a nationwide Forest Service objective seeks to “[p]rovide an environment where the forces of natural selection and survival rather than human actions determine which and what numbers of wildlife species will exist,” his letter states. Feedgrounds, he wrote “are counter to this objective.”

The Forest Service can prohibit feedgrounds and the killing of wolves, coyotes, foxes and other predators and scavengers — species that cull diseased elk, disperse them and consume contaminated birth or abortion offal that spreads disease, Carter wrote.

Shortening the winter feeding season for elk would reduce disease transmission, promote more natural migration and even allow a longer public-land grazing season for cattle, his letter states.

The Forest Service is still developing its proposal for the EIS, which it expects to complete by June 2024 and implement the next month, according to agency planning schedules.

The temporary Dell Creek permit became necessary after a suit brought by Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Western Watersheds Project and the Gallatin Wildlife Association revealed the feedground was not authorized.

Feeding elk hay at Dell Creek begins about Nov. 15 and continues through April, based on conditions. Feeding of elk in northwest Wyoming began in Jackson Hole in the early 1900s.

“Supplemental feeding is a complicated and often contentious issue with biological, social, economic and political considerations,” Game and Fish wrote after receiving its temporary permit. The agency continues to develop a feedground management plan and invites public participation.

A new Wyoming law requires the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to plan to replace feedgrounds that are on federal land and threatened with closure. The law shifted feedground closure authority — other than that made through federal or court action — from the appointed Game and Fish Commission to the governor. The law gives the Wyoming Livestock Board the last review of any Game and Fish feedground closure recommendation before the governor considers it.

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