Forest will allow G&F to feed elk at Alkali but 5-year phaseout has begun

JACKSON, Wyo. – An embattled feed ground in the Gros Ventre that plays second fiddle to the nearby National Elk Refuge will again be in business this winter as state and federal game managers try to come up with a plan to eventually phase out supplemental feeding of elk over fears of spreading disease.

After a long-term approval between the US Forest Service and Wyoming Game and Fish to feed elk at the Alkali Creek feed ground was challenged by several environmental groups and eventually struck down by Judge Nancy Freudenthal last year, a one-year temporary feeding agreement was made between the Bridger-Teton and Game and Fish to feed at Alkali last winter.

“I have decided to authorize Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to operate and maintain the existing feed ground for elk at Alkali Creek for up to one year,” BTNF Supervisor Patricia O’Connor wrote in a letter last November that allowed feeding at Alkali Creek for the 2018-19 winter season. “This authorization includes the maintenance of one hay stack-yard containing two hay sheds, a horse corral, a small wooden tack shed, an elk trap, and a water development system.”

Alkali Creek Feedground in the Gros Ventre. Courtesy BTNF

It turned out feeding at Alkali last winter was fairly minimal. Fewer and fewer elk have chosen to winter in the Gros Ventre recently and that is something game managers across the board would like to remedy. The small, 91-acre operation at Alkali Creek could play a crucial role in getting elk off the larger National Elk Refuge property and back in the habit of dispersing or migrating for the winter.

It’s possibly a game plan that would make all groups feel better about the challenges of getting elk through difficult winters versus congregating large herds and possibly increasing the chance CWD and other transmissible disease gets a foothold in the iconic Jackson elk herd.

“We have agreed to move forward with analysis authorizing Wyoming Game and Fish to use [Bridger-Teton NF] land for operation of an elk feedground at Alkali Creek for five years, the 2019-2024 feeding seasons, for emergency feeding only, to enable Wyoming Game and Fish to phase out its use of the Alkali Creek Feedground,” O’Connor stated. “We and the state are working together and are in agreement that it’s a good time to phase out feeding at Alkali and begin shrinking the footprint there.”

Jonathan Ratner, Wyoming director for Western Watersheds Project, one of a handful of groups pressing to eliminate elk feeding programs over fear of spreading disease, said, “These feedlots are powder kegs for disease transmission, and with the expansion of chronic wasting disease into the Yellowstone region, the fuse is lit. We should allow the elk to reoccupy their natural winter ranges.”

But how quickly can elk figure out a free lunch is over and will they be able to adapt at the numbers currently maintained now? More than double the desired wapiti have been using the National Elk Refuge in the past few winters—seasons that were fairly mild. In fact, the NER did not feed at all during the winter of 2017-18, the first time in 38 years it had skipped a season of supplemental feeding.

The five-year phaseout plan at Alkali Creek mirrors US Fish and Wildlife’s desire to draw down its feeding program on the National Elk Refuge. All groups agree that supplemental winter feeding invites opportunities for disease but a ‘cold turkey’ shutoff could spell disaster especially in a harsh winter scenario.

O’Connor said she is closely following a new statewide CWD working group and its recommendations. The next step is to address winter feeding at several other feed grounds maintained by Game and Fish—some on Bridger-Teton land, some on state lands.

“We all have the same interests and are hearing from the same people. We are all concerned about disease and we know feeding is not the right thing to do in the long-term. But we’ve been doing this for so long, you can’t just shut it off immediately, either. There is no good solution on this issue,” O’Connor told Buckrail. “I would like to see what [the CWD Working Group] comes up with because we still have several other feed grounds on Forest land. We are actively updating our step-down plan, and Alkali Creek is a good first step.”

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