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Game and Fish explains draft elk feedground management plan and looks for public input

A group of elk on a snowy feedground.
Wyoming Public Media
Wyoming Game and Fish Department
A group of elk on a snowy feedground.

For the first time, Wyoming is outlining specifically how it will manage its 22 state-operated elk feedgrounds going forward. The department released a draft plan, and it is a shift from how the state has historically done things. Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan spoke with Mark Gocke, Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s public information specialist.

This copy has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Caitlin Tan: So before we dive into the plan, let me have you just give us a quick little history on feed grounds in Wyoming.

Mark Gocke: Elk feed grounds actually started way back in 1912. We had some bad winters in 1910 and 1911, where a lot of elk died. Particularly in Jackson Hole that got the attention of [U.S.] Congress and they appropriated money for what would become the National Elk Refuge on the edge of Jackson.

Now, this particular planning process that we're talking about really doesn't deal with the National Elk Refuge. But it deals with the 22 state elk feed grounds that came a little later. In 1929, the Wyoming Legislature passed legislation that made the Wyoming Game and Fish Department [WGFD] financially liable to reimburse ranchers for hay or property damage by elk. That's when we created [the] 22 state elk feed grounds that we have today. The purpose of elk feed grounds really was to keep elk off of private land and causing property damage and so forth. And then over time, we realized that concentrating elk could facilitate disease like brucellosis that is transmissible to cattle. That complicated things because then you're caught, kind of in a catch 22, where elk on feed grounds facilitates the disease. But if you don't have the feed grounds, the elk are gonna go to the cattle feed lines and give it [disease] to cattle. And it's gotten even more complicated because as you have more towns springing up or highways, now we're trying to keep elk out of towns and we're trying to keep elk off of highways and people hitting them. The importance of the feed grounds has grown, but on the other hand, the downsides of feed grounds, the major thing, is disease.

CT: So now getting to this draft feedground management plan, the main takeaway is that the idea is to reduce elk dependence on feed grounds. Tell us a little bit more about that. Does that mean we eventually wouldn't have any elk feed grounds?

MG: Well, I think ideally, yeah. We would love it if we didn't have elk feed grounds in the face of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and brucellosis and other diseases. But that is something that can't just happen overnight. A lot of people think that, “If we got these disease issues, why don't we just shut down these feedgrounds – makes sense, right?” Well, turning down the feedgrounds would affect the livelihoods of a lot of people, particularly ranchers. What we want to do is reduce the elk’s reliance on feedgrounds. We want to create opportunities for elk to winter out on native winter range or possibly even on private land if we were to provide incentives for private landowners to maybe not have cattle in the winter time and winter elk instead. But all of this with the idea of reducing disease transmission.

But there are some sideboards, we have elk population objectives that are publicly derived. If we were to do away with feedgrounds, it is likely we would have less elk. And so we have this agreement with the public to maintain elk populations at these publicly supported population objectives, and so that would have to be reviewed. Something else that is to be considered, is there's a lot of other wildlife out on native winter range where these elk might go, and so it would create some increased competition with other species like mule deer.

CT: What are some other potential strategies? You mentioned potentially the private property agreements, what would be some other strategies for slowly reducing the reliance on feed grounds?

MG: You have to do habitat improvements as well, increasing both quantity and quality of forage around feedgrounds so that more elk can winter out longer. And we try to encourage that today, even before this process.

Also, feeding in a different way. The traditional way of feeding now is the most efficient way timewise – just to have your horse drawn sleigh, go down a long line and kick hay off either side, and then come back and do another line and then you're done. But a better way to do it we found with regard to disease, would be to make small patches of hay across a larger area that spreads animals out, maybe more mimicking what they might normally do on a native winter range off of a feed ground.

Ultimately, whatever we would try, it's going to have to be done with a lot of collaboration with local ranchers, and other people who have a vested interest in what goes on on those feedgrounds.

That brings me to what the next phase of this process would be, which we’re calling Feedground Management Action Plans. They would be specific to a particular feedground or maybe a group of feedgrounds that are in close proximity, that where elk sometimes go from one feedground to the other and such, In this next phase, after this plan is approved by the Game and Fish Commission, we would sit down and identify those adjacent landowners and others with a vested interest and sit around the table and think, “What are the obstacles we're facing to maybe phase this feedground out? Or at least move in that direction? And what are the solutions to those obstacles?” And just have some honest conversations with people about it.

CT: Would it ever possibly look like elk relearning migration patterns? I mean, could we see them migrating in the way that mule deer pronghorn migrate in the winter?

MG: Oh, sure. I think so. There's still definitely some intact elk migrations that take place, and it still could happen in places.

One of the other things that could happen on private land, if the landowner was interested, is to fence off private areas to keep elk from getting food rewards. We do that to some degree today. We've definitely fenced off and provided materials for fencing of haystacks and smaller areas. But if we were to fence off large pastures or something, where elk wouldn't be able to get any food rewards, they would probably just keep moving. And if you fence off any chance of them getting their food rewards, they just keep headed for winter range. So it's plausible to think that elk could reestablish some old traditional migration routes.

CT: So going back to the Chronic Wasting Disease issue – it's increasingly becoming a problem. Now in this plan with reducing dependence on the feedgrounds, it's going to take some time to roll this out, as you're saying. Is there concern that the disease could kind of become too big of a problem?

MG: Oh, there's definitely a concern about Chronic Wasting Disease. It was two years ago that we discovered the first elk positive for Chronic Wasting Disease in close proximity to an elk feedground. It was in or near the border of Grand Teton National Park and the National Wildlife Refuge. We've had a couple more since then.

So there's a lot we don't know about Chronic Wasting Disease and how much time we have, so to speak, before it could possibly start reducing populations. But we know the prudent thing to do is to not sit on our laurels and to do whatever we can to move in a good direction with regard to elk feedgrounds. So that's why we have this draft plan out for public review right now. And we just want to hear from anybody, quite frankly, who might have a good idea with regard to elk feedgrounds and where we might go in the future.

Public comments on the Game & Fish’s draft elk feedgrounds management plan are being taken through September 10th. Several public meetings are being held this month too. All meetings are at 6 p-m – July 24th at the Teton County Public Library, July 25th online on Zoom, July 26th at the Sublette County Public Library and July 27th at the Afton Civic Center.

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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