Rep. Sommers: Game and Fish won’t let 400 Dell Creek elk starve


WYOMING -- A Sublette County legislator is confident Game and Fish Department personnel “will work their butt(s) off” to ensure some 400 elk that depend on the Dell Creek Feedground don’t starve this winter. Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, made his comments after U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal ruled the wildlife agency has no permit to operate the feedground.

Game and Fish feeds up to about 400 elk at Dell Creek on the Bridger Teton National Forest each winter, but conservation groups sued over the practice. They claimed that artificially concentrating elk increases the chance of spreading fatal, incurable Chronic Wasting Disease, among other things.

Freudenthal ruled Sept. 21 that a 2017 one-year special use permit Game and Fish obtained for the feedground had expired. The permit is void even though the Forest Service had written Game and Fish allowing “use of [National Forest Service] land for operation and maintenance of the Dell Creek … feedground,” the judge wrote.

There’s no record of the wildlife agency applying for a feedground permit renewal or amendment, Freudenthal found. Although the Forest Service told Game and Fish it was working on permit renewal, it actually “has no application to sanction or extend the (Wyoming Game and Fish Commission) activity of supplemental winter feeding at Dell Creek.”

There’s no quick fix to the Dell Creek issue, according to reporting in the Jackson Hole Daily, which quoted an outfitter on the slim chance of obtaining federal permission before winter. Anticipating a potential adverse ruling in suits over the fate of state feeding on federal lands, however, the Game and Fish Department has plans to replace the feedgrounds, director Brian Nesvik has said.

“We have looked at contingency plans on those feedgrounds with the most threat” of closure, Nesvik told a legislative committee in March. “We have entered into some discussions.”

Nesvik declined to elaborate at the time on specific negotiations with landowners for new sites.

The Dell Creek Feedground, located about three miles northeast of The Elkhorn Bar and Grill in Bondurant, sits in a “snow hole” where deep drifts and sub-zero temperatures tax the elk, Sommers said. Game and Fish has operated the feedground on 35 acres there for more than 40 years and, Sommers said, elk no longer know how to migrate to viable winter ranges.

“In a normal winter there’s really no natural feed, native habitat,” Sommers said. “If they don’t (feed them) immediately, they’ll be on every cattle feed line there is,” he said. That would expose cattle to brucellosis, which can be devastating to ranchers.

Sommers, the majority floor leader in the Wyoming House of Representatives, said he messaged Nesvik saying “he needs to get his game warden over there to those ranchers and talk to them and tell them what the strategy is.” Game and Fish is working with at least one private landowner for a replacement feedground site, Sommers said.

Despite the looming situation, Game and Fish would not comment on Freudenthal’s order. “(W)e don’t have anything to offer until we have more time to analyze the decision,” spokeswoman Sara DiRienzo wrote in an email. The Bridger-Teton referred an inquiry to the Department of Justice, which would not comment “(a)s this matter remains in litigation.”

Even if Game and Fish can’t find a new nearby feedground site in Bondurant, agency personnel are “not going to just throw their hands up and let [the elk] die,” Sommers said.

“They’ll work their butt(s) off if they can’t get them fed in that valley,” Sommers said. Game and Fish might even bait elk “over the hill to the next feedground,” he said, a daunting proposition given 20 or so miles of mountain topography and forest that separates the two feeding sites.

“It’s proven very difficult in the past,” Sommers said of attempts to move elk herds in the winter.

Sommers, who operates a ranch about 35 miles southeast of Bondurant, sponsored a successful bill earlier this year that requires, among other things, that Game and Fish plan to replace any elk feedground on federal land that might be jeopardized by a lawsuit or other action. The agency’s effort to address the complex dynamics brought into play by CWD, brucellosis, lost migration knowledge and historic feeding practices led to his keen interest, he said.

The potential transmission of brucellosis to cattle should elk leave a feedground is “really huge,” Sommers said. Several cattle herds in Sublette County have been infected with brucellosis in recent years, most likely from elk and sometimes with significant economic consequences to the rancher.

Sommers downplayed the threat of CWD, despite conservationists’ insistence that artificially concentrating elk on 22 state feedgrounds west of the Continental Divide would set the stage for rapid spread of the contagious, incurable disease.

“CWD is going to spread through elk anyway over the long haul,” Sommers said. Some elk will be resistant, he said, echoing University of Wyoming research that’s found about 2 percent of elk are believed to be immune.

“They will march ahead and calve out elk that are resistant,” Sommers said.

Re-establishment of historic migration patterns that saw elk move to winter range in Sublette County and beyond “is not a reality,” Sommers said. Beyond lost migration knowledge, development would preclude such a re-establishment, he said.

Freudenthal’s order also sent another feedground permit back to the Forest Service for further review. That permit authorizes emergency feeding at Alkali Creek in the Gros Ventre River drainage northeast of Jackson.

Freudenthal left intact another permit authorizing continued feeding at the Forest Park Feedground in Lincoln County pending a final Forest Service decision on that site. Forest Park lies along the Greys River between the Salt and Wyoming ranges, south of the Box Y Ranch.

Game and Fish operates the feedgrounds to keep elk off cattle feedlines, private property and highways and to grow a surplus for hunters. Fourteen of the 22 feedgrounds are on federal property and they support up to 20,000 of the state’s 112,000 elk. Game and Fish biologists estimate the agency would have to reduce the population of feedground elk by 60 to 80 percent without the feeding program, Nesvik has said.

Feedgrounds also reduce winter competition between elk and the state’s troubled deer population, which would lose out without elk feedgrounds, Game and Fish has said. Elk feeding is believed to be partly responsible for lost natural migration patterns.

Freudenthal’s order came in a suit brought by Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Western Watersheds Project and the Gallatin Wildlife Association. Conservation and environmental groups hailed Freudenthal’s decision and said it’s time for the U.S. Forest Service to follow the law and science, which has found no vaccine or cure for the contagious disease that spreads faster in crowded conditions. 

“Even with fatal chronic wasting disease now surrounding all three of these elk feedgrounds, the Forest Service has continued to ignore science, ignore legal directives, and put Wyoming wildlife at grave risk of catastrophic disease outbreaks,” Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming, said in a statement. “This court decision makes it explicitly clear that the Forest Service can no longer simply ignore the devastating impacts that a chronic wasting disease epidemic centered on feedgrounds could have on elk herds throughout northwestern Wyoming.”

Western Watershed’s Jonathan Ratner, the group’s Wyoming director, said feedgrounds primarily benefit ranchers “who don’t want native wildlife spreading out among the low elevation areas and competing with their cattle for forage.” Operating feedgrounds “is both outdated and risks chronic wasting disease outbreaks throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem,” he said in a statement.

Wyoming Wildlife Advocates’ Executive Director Kristin Combs said the Forest Service authorizations have been unlawful and wildlife should now come first. “It’s time for the Forest Service to stop permitting feedgrounds without any analysis or review of the role feedgrounds play in disease transmission and overall health of Wyoming’s elk,” she said in a statement.

Along with the state, hunters also joined the lawsuit in defending the Forest Service’s authorization of Game and Fish feedground sites.

Wyofile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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