Game & Fish asks public to help solve elk, CWD, feedground puzzle

Wyofile by  Angus M. Thuermer Jr. 

WYOMING — The Wyoming Game and Fish Department last week wrapped up a six-town tour aimed at launching stakeholder groups to generate “new ideas for management” of Wyoming’s 22 elk feedgrounds, where chronic wasting disease threatens some 14,000 elk.

Wildlife managers hope the meetings from Rock Springs to Jackson will encourage citizen stakeholders to volunteer for an 18-month effort that could lead to a new paradigm for managing the winter feedgrounds. In the face of fatal, incurable CWD, Game and Fish may not continue business as usual, officials said as they called for citizen participants.

“We need to look differently [at] things we have done in the past,” Brad Hovinga, Jackson regional wildlife supervisor, told residents in Jackson last week. That raises questions about the future of elk west of the Continental Divide, where feeders dole out hay, concentrating wildlife in a way that can accelerate disease spread.

The agency will impanel groups of stakeholders to undertake a “shared learning” experience, Hovinga said. Unlike some other citizen-engagement processes the state has undertaken, this one won’t be consensus-driven, requiring all stakeholders to agree on each point.

The department wants to consider “multiple perspectives” during the development of the plan, Scott Edberg, Game and Fish deputy chief of wildlife, said in a statement. Stakeholder perspectives and recommendations will be “put into the Game and Fish hands,” Tara Kuipers, a consultant from Cody who facilitated the meetings, told Jackson participants.

The Game and Fish Department would draft a new feedground plan to be presented to the Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners for adoption. The agency would hold public hearings, officials said.

The goal is a plan that would address social, biological, political and economic problems and benefits of feeding, Game and Fish officials have stated.

“This is not a process to close feedgrounds,” Hovinga said. “It’s not a process to ensure that we always keep them open. But everything in between, everything’s on the table.”

100 years of feeding

Some conservationists believe Wyoming should act immediately to prevent CWD from spreading among elk, but closing feedgrounds would upset a system to which both wildlife, ranchers, hunters and the public have grown accustomed. Because of feedgrounds, elk no longer follow traditional migration patterns that took them from summer to winter ranges and back again.

Feedgrounds keep elk numbers up and the wildlife away from winter cattle feeding operations and highways. Closing feedgrounds would send hundreds of animals to private ranches and stock feedlines and could cause many elk to starve, critics of such ideas say.

There is no vaccine and no cure for CWD, a somewhat mysterious ailment that attacks the central nervous system causing an animal to slowly wither.

John Fandek guides his horse team while feeding about 1,000 elk at the Black Butte Feedground in the Upper Green River Basin on Feb. 28, 2021. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr/WyoFile)
As it wrestles with such issues, the Game and Fish Department expects to appoint members to stakeholder groups soon. The agency is hoping for 10-12 members in each group, representing everything from outfitters and guides, elected officials, academia and others, agency spokesman Mark Gocke in Jackson said.

The groups will meet together to start with, Gocke said. They will undertake “shared learning” by delving into topics already identified in the first phase of the agency’s initiative. Those will include, among other things, the social and political pressure Game and Fish faces with respect to feedgrounds, what other states do and options for finding more winter range on federal and private property.

Each stakeholder group will eventually provide its suite of recommendations and feedback to the department.

Agency employees will draft and recommend a plan to its governing board, the appointed civilian Game and Fish Commission. The goal is a long-term wildlife and feedground management paradigm that is durable and publicly supported, officials said.

The stakeholder process and resulting commission action is the second phase of the agency’s initiative and would be completed in the spring of 2023, officials said. The first phase collected ideas from around the state. The third would see the agency implementing any new plan.

Turnout at the six meetings in western Wyoming was mixed, with only a handful attending some presentations, scores at others, officials said. Attendees were asked to list their top concerns about feedgrounds and to describe their ideal outcome for the 14,000 elk and their winter haunts.

The complex bio-political problem involves diseases of both elk and cattle, the protection of ranchers and agricultural interests and the desire of hunters to have abundant, healthy quarry, according to some of the public comments. Elk also have constituents among tourists and nature lovers and among conservationists who value free-ranging wildlife that follow natural habits and processes.

Woven among those sometimes-competing interests in elk are political boundaries that bisect their habitat. Elk range across national parks, the National Elk Refuge, U.S. Forest Service lands and private property, each of which has its own set of priorities, laws and regulations and rights.

The 14,000 or so elk on state feedgrounds account for about 80% of elk in the surrounding areas, not counting the Jackson Elk Herd that centers its winters on the National Elk Refuge.

Game and Fish elk management does not extend to the refuge in Jackson administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The feedground plan would not directly affect operations there.

An average of 7,426 elk annually, or 64% of the Jackson Herd, receive supplemental feed at that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operation. The Jackson Elk Herd, which has a population goal of 11,000 animals, was the first feedground herd in which CWD was detected when a hunter’s kill in 2020 tested positive for the cousin of Mad Cow Disease.

Scrutiny of elk management could be keen. The Jackson Elk Herd is “the most iconic elk herd in the world,” participant John Watsabaugh said at the Game and Fish meeting in Jackson.

Feedground closure law

A new law governing feedground closures will not affect the Phase II feedground initiative, Hovinga told the Jackson group. The law stripped the agency of its ability to close feedgrounds, transferring that authority to the governor.

The law requires the agency to plan to replace any feedground on federal property that could be closed through litigation or other policy changes. The law requires Game and Fish to analyze any proposal to close a feedground and submit that analysis to the Wyoming Livestock Board for its review and comment before it is forwarded to the governor.

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The law only codifies “what we’ve been doing anyway,” Hovinga said.

Given the history of feedgrounds in western Wyoming, change could come slowly.

After 100 years of feeding elk, “we’re not coming out of it overnight,” he said.

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