Environmental attorneys are calling on the National Elk Refuge to make good on old promises and produce a decade-delayed plan detailing how it will achieve a court-ordered reduction in elk feeding.
The confirmation of chronic wasting disease in Jackson Hole last month adds urgency to ending business-as-usual elk feeding, Earthjustice wrote this week to Elk Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell. The deadly and incurable disease’s presence in the valley makes it “imperative” that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-owned property take “prompt action” and issue a phase-out plan that was supposed to be released to the public in 2008.
“Failing to do so,” Earthjustice’s Dec. 4 letter says, “would undermine the conservation purpose of the Refuge, violate the Improvement Act, and court ecological disaster by regularly encouraging high numbers and densities of wild elk to occupy the refuge, thereby facilitating the spread of wildlife disease among the fed elk population.”
The refuge manager, a relative newcomer who arrived early 2017, sympathized with the call to action.
“I agree, in substance, with much of the letter,” Glaspell said. “Chronic wasting disease is a big deal, and feedgrounds are likely to exacerbate its effects, and we ought to be moving pretty quickly to reduce reliance on supplemental feeding. No argument there.”
But Glaspell also said the refuge can’t act unilaterally. Fish and Wildlife Service higher-ups have demanded the refuge compromise with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on what the federal agency calls its “step-down” plan, collaboration that will be necessary to reverse trends that are running headlong into the goals of the refuge’s 2007 bison and elk management plan.
“The elk feeding program extends far beyond the refuge, and the Jackson Elk Herd’s range extends well beyond the refuge,” Glaspell said. “No solution that we identify or pursue on our own is going to be sufficient.”
The refuge’s guiding, now-12-year-old plan called for reversing elk numbers to 5,000 head in the winter, a population that will supposedly enable supplemental alfalfa to be skipped in winters of average severity. The goals were supposed to be achieved within 15 years. But a dozen years in, numbers of the tawny ungulates have instead steadily increased, as the Jackson Elk Herd has redistributed and is now piling onto the refuge in a historic proportion.
Earthjustice managing attorney Tim Preso, who works out of Bozeman, Montana, described the letter as a follow-up to an old legal clash that ended in the refuge’s favor.
“We sued in 2007 because [the plan] didn’t have hard commitments about ending feeding,” Preso said. “The Court of Appeals said they’re going to give them space to do this on their terms — but that they’ve got to do it.
“Flash forward a decade, they haven’t issued a plan to begin the process of phasing out feeding, and now we have chronic wasting disease in Grand Teton National Park.”
CWD, which is similar to mad cow disease, was confirmed in Teton County for the first time in mid-November. It was found in a road-killed mule deer buck located just north of the refuge boundary near Kelly.
At least immediately, the refuge will make no changes to its protocol for feeding elk as a result of the newly confirmed disease, which can survive outside animal hosts in soil, grass and water. The misfolded brain proteins called “prions” that spread CWD could cross over species to elk at any time and from there infect the refuge’s historic feed lines.
When asked, Glaspell had no estimate for when the “step-down” plan, which is expected to abbreviate the feeding season, will be completed. Decisions about the plan, he said, will be made at Fish and Wildlife’s regional level, but the “detailed negotiations” are taking place between him and Wyoming Game and Fish’s Jackson regional leadership.
“We continue to work on it and pursue that kind of sweet spot between various values and competing interests,” Glaspell said. “These are pretty low-level discussions about how exactly we phase back feeding and mitigate the potential negative consequences. The challenge, of course, is that this hasn’t been done before. It’s an experiment, and we have a lot of educated guesses on the table.”
“My hope, now that we have chronic wasting disease definitively on our doorstep,” Glaspell said, “is that this will be a catalyst to push the step-down plan and, more importantly, its actions, across the finish line.”
Preso stopped short of saying he expects another lawsuit.
“It’s really an invitation to get moving in this process,” the Earthjustice attorney said. “We’ve had a decade to plan and implement a transition to a reduction or end of the feeding regime. We wasted that decade. And now we’ve got CWD in Grand Teton, with 11,000 elk in the Jackson herd and 8,000 elk on the refuge. The whole equation just got a lot harder.”