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Wyoming Game and Fish is one step closer to a final elk feedground management plan

A herd of elk looks on, as they take a break from eating on a snowy ground with mountains in the distance.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
The WGFD has 21 state operated elk feedgrounds in western Wyoming.

Wyoming is figuring out how it’ll manage elk feedgrounds into the foreseeable future, and after years of input, a final draft plan has been released.

In late 2020, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), as well as more than 60 stakeholders, started the process of formulating a draft plan.

The overall goal is to reduce elk’s reliance on supplemental feed at the 21 state run feedgrounds in Western Wyoming. This is largely because of disease transmission, like the fatal and untreatable Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which is a growing concern amongst Wyoming’s elk herds.

“Thank goodness CWD is more or less a slow moving disease. But if we don't start working on that [feedground management plan] now CWD could beat us to the punch,” said Brad Hovinga, WGFD’s Jackson regional wildlife supervisor.

Most recently, a cow elk tested positive for CWD in late December in the Bondurant area, between Jackson and Pinedale – near two elk feedgrounds.

“When CWD arrives on elk feed grounds, if we don't have a plan to move forward, then that just puts us way behind. So this is our effort to try to get out in front of this,” said Hovinga about the final draft feedground management plan.

But, it’s no easy task. Although the draft plan outlines a goal to eventually reduce supplemental feeding, it has some very specific stipulations, called ‘sideboards.’

“All of our decisions we make have to comply with the sideboards that we're given,” said Hovinga. “That we manage for hunting opportunity based on elk population objectives, that we minimize damage to private property and disease transmission between wildlife and livestock, reduce those negative impacts to ag producers – not to create interspecies competition issues.”

The WGFD released a draft plan this summer and after public review, the department updated it to very clearly specify the importance of those ‘sideboards’ and public collaboration going forward.

Exactly how the department will manage for CWD and reduce reliance on feeding, while also adhering to the strict sideboards is still to be seen and likely will take decades.

“We're over a century into feeding elk in Western Wyoming,” Hovinga said. “We're not going to make a big substantial change to that in a short period of time. So, if we can make a change to how we manage elk in Western Wyoming in the next 20, 30 or 50 years, that's progress. And that's putting us in a place where we wouldn't be without this plan.”

Hovinga said this plan more or less circles the wagons in the department and gets everyone on the same page. It has to be passed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission in March, and then more specific plans can be made, likely for each herd unit.

“So to do things differently on an elk feedground, whether you change to feed differently, or you find places for elk to go to where they need less reliance on supplemental feeding, you have to work with a lot of communities. And that first community you need to work with and find solutions with is the ag community,” Hovinga said. “What will work for one landowner, one ranch, may not work for another. So it's important that you find solutions that work for all of them.”

Ironing out these details will come after the March commission meeting. Hovinga noted that no changes will happen without public support.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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