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Game and Fish commission gives final approval to slowly change how the state manages elk feedgrounds

Elk on a wintery feedground in western Wyoming.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Elk on a wintery feedground in western Wyoming.

After a lengthy morning conversation on pronghorn at a Pinedale meeting, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission shifted in the afternoon to another hot topic – elk feedgrounds.

Several hours were spent discussing the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) draft elk feedground management plan, at the end of which, the commission voted to approve. This now gets the ball rolling for Wyoming to begin changing how it manages its 22 state-run elk feedgrounds in the Western part of the state – albeit this process could take decades.

“What started as a logical solution to some very real problems has become one of the most complex and controversial wildlife management challenges of the 21st century,” said WGFD’s Jackson Wildlife Management Coordinator Cheyenne Stewart to the commission, who read a quote from a WGFD report from 20 years ago.

She briefly outlined the roughly 100-year history of feeding elk in Wyoming, which began as a response to some severe winters and was compounded by concern over elk damage to private property and disease transmission to livestock.

But, a growing modern-day issue is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). It’s a fatal neurological disease that spreads when elk congregate, making feedgrounds a concern.

“CWD is marching its way towards the feedground system,” Stewart said.

She said this as she showed a map of Wyoming, showing CWD first appearing in 1985 in the southeastern part of the state – on the map it was marked as a small pink blob. But, as she scrolled through the years, the pink blob grew, eventually enveloping the majority of the state. To date, there’s been four cases of CWD in feedground herd units.

But, Stewart pointed out that making predictions of just how severe CWD could be to these elk herds is tricky.

“We have never observed CWD in a feedground system,” she said.

So they can use data from free ranging and captive elk herds, but she noted that feedground elk are somewhat in between.

“There's still a lot of assumptions that we have to make, because we don't know the answers,” she said. “But because we have research, management and statistical knowledge modeling, we've gained a whole lot of information.”

She showed a graph of the general expectation of how CWD will affect the feedground system. It showed that overtime, CWD would cause an extreme decline in herd populations. In a hypothetical comparison, the graph showed that if all feeding stopped, there would be an initial decline that eventually stabilizes out. Basically, by year 10 the non-feeding scenario does better than the status quo of feeding. Similar findings are documented in a U.S. Geological Survey report released last year.

“Basically, because it's released from that burden of high CWD mortality,” she said.

Stewart was careful to continuously point out that that’s not what this plan proposes – to cease feeding elk. Rather, it’s a general plan to reduce reliance on feedgrounds over time. But it has to adhere to the agency’s ‘sideboards’ – which are comprehensive. They include maintaining elk population objectives, prioritizing hunting opportunities and minimizing elk damage to private property, livestock disease transmission, negative economic impacts to livestock producers and competition with other wintering wildlife.

Just how all of this will be accomplished will be ironed out in the coming months and years per each of the six herd units that depend on feedgrounds. Now that the commission approved the plan, that allows the Jackson and Pinedale areas to each pick a herd unit they’d like to start with and work with stakeholders to create what’s called a ‘Feedground Action Management Plan.’

Notably, many outfitters in the room were displeased that this plan was passed. They pointed to how currently many herds are at or above population objectives.

“What a wonderful, wonderful problem that the game and fish has to deal with elk numbers being over objective,” said western Wyoming outfitter Ted Jenkins to the commission. “It’s better than the sad black gloomy numbers we just seen from the mule deer guys here.”

Jenkins thinks the feedgrounds kept elk from being wiped out like the mule deer during the winter of ‘23.

“Maybe not anybody in this room has the intent to shut down feedgrounds,” Jenkins said. “But that doesn't mean in 15 years or 10 years, when everyone of us are changed out, that that is going to change. And I just hope that this plan doesn't kick the door open for that in certain instances.”

The commissioners pointed to the lengthy sideboards that have to be followed that will prevent any drastic, rapid changes to be made to the feedground structure.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” said WGFD Director Brian Nesvik. “There's a similarity here for sure, with the issue we talked about with the pronghorn corridor.”

He was referring to the concern that the federal government could step in if Wyoming doesn’t address CWD.

“And I do believe that the state needs to lead. We've got to be out in front of this issue and demonstrate that the state of Wyoming is the entity to manage elk feedgrounds and to do so in a responsible way,” he said.

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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