Game and Fish eyes backups should courts shut elk feedgrounds

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WYOMING — The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is making contingency plans to replace winter elk feedgrounds that might be shut by a court order, the agency’s director told a legislative committee last week.

A preliminary injunction growing from a lawsuit could force the wildlife agency to close a feedground within a month, department Director Brian Nesvik said Feb. 23. Two suits are in play, Nesvik said, and his agency is looking for replacement locations should a court suddenly cut elk off from their accustomed diets.

“We have looked at contingency plans on those feedgrounds with the most threat,” Nesvik told the committee in a Zoom meeting. “We have entered into some discussions,” he said, stopping short of details.

“I don’t want to reveal individual landowners [or] talk about specific negotiations.”

Nesvik was testifying to the House Travel Recreation and Wildlife committee on a bill that would strip Game and Fish of its authority over feedground closures, giving that power to the governor.

House Bill 101 – Elk feedground closings-requirements also would require the agency to plan to replace any feedground on federal property that was closed. There’s a big push by the environmental community to close feedgrounds, bill sponsor Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) told the committee, and the measure would allow the agency to replace them.

The threat of feedground closures “is one of the primary reasons I am running this bill,” Sommers told the committee.

Conservationists have targeted feedgrounds because they could accelerate the spread of always-fatal Chronic Wasting Disease. Suits in recent years have focused on feedgrounds on federal lands.

Fourteen of Wyoming’s 22 state-run feedgrounds are on federal property. They operate, in part, to keep elk off agricultural lands and winter cattle feed lines.

Agriculture, outfitters’ support

Despite criticism that Sommers’ measure is unnecessary, the committee last week advanced the bill with an 8-1 vote. The bill has widespread support from state agriculture and outfitting interests.

The Wyoming State Veterinarian and representatives from the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, the Wyoming Livestock Board, hunting outfitters and conservation districts all commented or testified in support.

An elk gets a snack from a feed sleigh before hay is spread out for the herd at the Black Butte Feedground. Photo: Angus M. Thuermer, Jr. // WyoFile

Conservationists’ criticism of the state’s feedgrounds increased with the discovery in 2020 of an elk in a feedground herd that tested positive for CWD, raising the specter the incurable malady could ravage a prized resource and contaminate the environment.

Feedgrounds reduce Game and Fish reimbursement costs to ranchers and diminish the spread of brucellosis, a bovine disease that has its own draconian effect on stock-growing industry.

The Game and Fish Department wouldn’t consider closing a feedground without undertaking the steps required in the bill — talking to the governor, the state livestock board and engaging the public, agency Director Brian Nesvik told the committee. The bill would require the Game and Fish to submit any closure recommendation to the livestock board, which would add its opinion before the issue goes to the governor for potential approval.

Sommers’ measure also would require Game and Fish to undertake relocation planning of the type Nesvik said is already underway. However, the bill provides no money to replace feedgrounds, Greater Yellowstone Coalition Wildlife Program Coordinator Chris Colligan told the committee.

“This is a very expensive proposition,” he said in comments opposing the bill. “Acquiring new [feedgrounds] would necessitate budgeting millions of dollars.”

Game and Fish has said it has no plans to shut down feedgrounds for a decade and it has launched an outreach initiative to help form a long-range plan addressing CWD. Up to 20,000 of the state’s 112,000-plus elk use the feedgrounds or the National Elk Refuge, all located west of the Continental Divide in Teton, Sublette or Lincoln counties.

Nesvik didn’t object to any of the bill’s provisions.

While bill backers touted the public engagement — at least one public meeting would be mandatory before any closure — one critic said the bill does the opposite.

“It codifies only two stakeholders,” said Jessi Johnson, government affairs director with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, referring to Game and Fish and the Livestock Board. “We worry about locking out other stakeholders.”

The bill would subject wildlife management to “the pendulum swing of changes in administrations,” she told the committee. “It could be different every couple of years.”

Further, Game and Fish’s ongoing initiative needs to run its course, she said, an observation endorsed by GYC’s Colligan.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places, and policy.

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