SUBLETTE COUNTY – Four conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, seeking closure of a state-run “elk feedlot” to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) into Jackson Hole.
The legal challenge, filed June 5 in the District of Columbia’s U.S. District Court, is led by Western Watershed Project with the Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and the Gallatin Wildlife Association, court records show.
It targets the Alkali Creek elk feedground, one of 22 operated by Wyoming Game and Fish (G&F) on a mix of public and private lands that are authorized by the Forest Service (FS) and in this case, Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF).
The Alkali Creek feedground is located high up the Gros Ventre River valley.
“The high-risk feedlot, run by the (G&F), baits and unnaturally concentrates wild Jackson elk in ways that are dangerously unhealthy,” states a June 5 release from the coalition.
Chronic wasting disease is lethal to wildlife and no vaccine or technique is yet known to kill the long-lasting prions that can survive in their environments for years and once they contaminate soil, can be found in forage, studies have shown.
G&F officials announced the discovery of a mule deer doe carcass found earlier this year near the Pinedale Airport that was positive for CWD.
“When –not ‘if’– chronic wasting disease arrives at Alkali Creek feedground, it may decimate the Jackson herd within the (BTNF), on the National Elk Refuge, and in other portions of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” said Jonathan Ratner, WWP’s Wyoming director. “Elk feedgrounds are a recipe for disaster.”
Lloyd Dorsey, a longtime Jackson Hole opponent to “artificial feeding” of wild elk, said the federal and state agencies “are gambling with these animals’ health by forcing the elk to remain more in unhealthy conditions for months each winter.”
Wyoming Wildlife Advocates’ executive director Roger Hayden, also based in Jackson Hole, also called for elimination of winter feedgrounds – “Allowing wild elk to roam free in natural abundance with predators keeping healthy herds healthy is the most sustainable paradigm for the future.”
The suit, filed against FS chief Thomas Tidwell and USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue.
Bill Eubanks, attorney with public interest environmental law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks LLP, said in a telephone interview that the legal challenge does not target the G&F Commission because it is the FS approving the special-use permit Alkali Creek feedground on the BTNF.
He said the timing was “ripe” for the legal complaint with CWD approaching Jackson Hole’s elk herds and the FS should close the Alkali Creek location.
“This feedground is being used to artificially attract and feed the region’s wild elk herd – known as the Jackson elk herd – with hay, rather than allowing the elk to naturally disperse on the landscape to locations where natural forage is available,” the complaint states.
The Alkali Creek Feedground is “a natural bottleneck” adjacent to the Gros Ventre Wilderness and within one mile of the Gros Ventre River, which flows southwest to meet the Snake River near Jackson, where the National Elk Refuge is located.
If CWD reaches Alkali Creek wintering elk, it would spread downriver through the BTNF’s 3.7 million acres to other feedgrounds between Alkali Creek to the National Elk Refuge and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), the suit says.
“In the challenged permit, the FS decided to perpetuate the artificial feeding of elk at Alkali Creek Feedground in winter rather than abandoning – or at least phasing out – this outdated and environmentally damaging practice. Artificial winter feeding creates unnaturally dense concentrations of elk, causing deleterious impacts to elk and the surrounding environment.
“In particular, continued feeding at Alkali Creek Feedground is highly likely to cause or contribute to an outbreak of lethal chronic wasting disease (“CWD”), the equivalent of ‘mad cow’ disease in deer and elk, or other diseases, which would devastate elk populations and cause cascading impacts to the function and stability of the GYE,” according to the suit.
Further, it continues, the FS was “aware of the potentially devastating environmental impacts of it decision” to authorize that feedground permit and “failed to fully present the actual purpose and need for this action to the public.”
The FS made an arbitrary decision to approve the permit and also failed to take the “required hard look” at risks to the Jackson elk herd, does not prepare annual BTNF feedground reports or “recommend needed changes based on those evaluations,” which violates the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), it states.
Further, it says, other land-management agencies acknowledge CWD as one of the diseases resulting from artificial feeding of “concentrated elk populations.”
The complaint asks that the FS’ decision to grant the Alkali Creek feedground’s special-use permit be vacated and remanded and remand the BTNF’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) and record of decision “pending preparation of a new EIS and ROD consistent with NEPA” and other administrative procedures.
In the meantime, the coalitions seek an injunction against “authorizing the continued operation of Alkali Creek Feedground” until the FS complies with all obligations.
Find the entire complaint on the Western Watersheds Project website at