Alkali Creek feedground

Elk once gathered on the Alkali feedground each winter to receive daily rations of hay, though the site has seldom been used in recent years.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest has reauthorized use of the Alkali feedground under certain conditions, but wildlife managers say they have no intention of continuing to lay out hay at the historic elk feeding area.

Instead, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department intends to lure undesired elk away using a bread crumb-style trail of hay, with the goal of leading them up the Gros Ventre River corridor to the state-owned Patrol Cabin feedground. Flaking off pieces of a hay bale to move elk is “standard operating procedure” for the state agency, regional supervisor Brad Hovinga said.

“It’s just a flake of hay every 50, 100 feet — enough to keep them interested,” Hovinga said. “The herd will gradually work their way along the trail of hay to get [from] point A to point B. ... It’s a very effective way to move elk, if they’re hungry.”

Hovinga said that in his career he has moved elk “10 to 12 miles a night” using the hay-flaking technique in the Green River basin.

In this instance, point A will be the Alkali Creek bench, an elk feedground on Bridger-Teton land that’s being eased to a halt as a result of litigation challenging the controversial, disease-spreading practice. The middle ground — i.e., where the elk will travel — is a 5-mile stretch of Gros Ventre Road. Plans are for elk to cross over the Gros Ventre River on the Goosewing bridge and then end up at point B, the Patrol Cabin feedground.

Under the terms of a Bridger-Teton decision signed off on last week, Game and Fish does have the option of instead feeding elk on a tiny swath of the former 91-acre feedground. The national forest’s Jackson District ranger, Mary Moore, authorized feeding on 2 acres, keeping the affected area to under 5 acres in order to avoid having to do a timely, lengthy analysis like an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment. The balance of the 5 acres was consumed by facilities at the Alkali feedground (1 acre) and the 3-foot-wide, 5.3-mile-long intermittent hay line down Gros Ventre Road (2 acres).

Under the terms of the five-year permit, Game and Fish can only feed under “emergency conditions.” Those will be met if elk are commingling with cattle on nearby ranchland or if feeding is desired to stop 200 or more elk from moving down the drainage toward the National Elk Refuge. The Bridger-Teton must agree with the assessment.

Distributions of elk up the Gros Ventre recently — there were 400 or so wapiti near Alkali last week — could have met the emergency feeding standards, but Game and Fish did not pursue it.

“We haven’t been discussing it yet, though I know that some of the conditions were likely met,” Hovinga said. “It wasn’t necessary for us, because there was a lot of [standing] feed available.”

Moreover, there are no plans to feed elk at Alkali Creek in the future, he said.

“Our intent is to not feed at Alkali,” Hovinga said. “We’re hoping we don’t need to do that, and it would be our preference to not throw out any hay at Alkali at all.

“Ultimately the litigation determined that feeding will cease at Alkali, and we want to have every opportunity to make the cessation of feeding possible,” he said. “By doing any feeding at Alkali makes the cessation more difficult.”

Alkali Creek, one of 22 state-run feedgrounds, has been a battleground over the issue of elk feeding in general. The site was used for feeding elk as long ago as the 1930s, and as recently as 2002 was used by more than 2,000 elk.

The feedground was renewed for the long haul by the Bridger-Teton in 2015, but Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and the Gallatin Wildlife Association collectively sued and won. Issuing a decision in September 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Freudenthal ruled that the forest improperly took a backseat to Wyoming in the approval process and that managers failed to take a “hard look” at phasing out feeding and disease threats.

The permit just issued by the Bridger-Teton is meant to be a way of allowing Game and Fish to wean elk off the feedground without going cold turkey. It has seldom been used in recent years anyway.

“We clearly feel like this is not business as usual,” the Bridger-Teton’s Moore said in an interview. “We’ve taken into consideration the concerns from environmental groups, the outfitting community and Game and Fish, and really feel like this is a good middle ground for all of those entities to allow for emergency feeding as needed, with the hope to get out of the feeding business at Alkali within the next five years when the permit expires.”

One of the litigants, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates Executive Director Kristin Combs, said she’s still reviewing the Bridger-Teton’s decision, but she had some first-blush concerns.

“What’s most important to us is that densities are reduced,” Combs said. “If elk are just funneling over to Patrol Cabin, we’re going to have increased densities there, and that’s just exacerbating the problem.”

The “problem” Combs is worried about most is chronic wasting disease. The lethal, density-driven malady hasn’t yet been found in Wyoming’s human-fed elk populations, but its crossover from deer in the region is only a matter of time.

Threat of disease weighed heavily on judge Freudenthal’s mind — it was mentioned 46 times — in the ruling that threw out the Bridger-Teton’s decision to feed elk for the long haul at Alkali Creek.

“There is no question that Alkali Creek feedground could become a reservoir for CWD infection if it becomes established in elk populations in northwest Wyoming,” Freudenthal ruled. “That potential is increased with the concentration of elk at feedgrounds.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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