Elk count on National Elk Refuge

Elk congregate on the feed line on the National Elk Refuge. A plan is now out to curtail the historic practice of winter feeding of the herd.

A detailed plan to scale back elk feeding on the National Elk Refuge is out for public review after more than two decades in the making.

Although it’s nuanced and gradual, the plan’s goals are simple: reducing elk numbers to a level where feeding isn’t necessary in an ordinary winter. If enacted, it would mark a monumental change, considering the 107-year history of feeding on the refuge.

“The bottom line is this is supposed to reduce the reliance on supplemental feeding and having the elk that overwinter on the National Elk Refuge more reliant on native vegetation,” said Ketti Spomer, who’s stepping in as the refuge’s acting manager.

On Monday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the draft “step-down” plan, adapted from a 2007 plan that itself took a decade to prepare and navigate lawsuits and bureaucracy, along with an environmental assessment. The documents were released the last day of September — a date that wasn’t accidental, being the agreed-to deadline to stave off litigation challenging the federal agency’s inaction.

Before being officially released Monday the plan was leaked through Freedom of Information Act requests and detailed in the press. Strategies to wean elk off alfalfa are essentially the same as those discussed several years ago, Spomer said.

The centerpiece of the effort is to start feeding elk later than usual — though just by a few days — and then end the alfalfa handouts in the spring about one week earlier than the status quo. The truncated feeding season is intended to draw fewer and fewer elk to feedlines on the 24,778-acre refuge. Because elk congregating on artificial feedlines is a learned behavior, the thinking goes that over time fewer animals would show up, leading to a smaller wintertime population.

The objective detailed in the plan is to reduce the three-year running average of elk and bison “fed days” to 50% or less of the baseline number for five years in a row. If the volume of pellets hitting the ground is roughly halved, in other words, the plan’s goal would be met.

The plan calls for 5,000 elk and 500 bison. Bison numbers are close to that level because of a dozen years of hunting pressure, though elk numbers have actually increased significantly since 2007 due to a redistribution of the Jackson Elk Herd. A historically high proportion of the 11,000 animal herd is being drawn to the refuge.

The plans are meant to be flexible and “adaptive,” and in no way preclude the possibility of feeding elk and bison during heavy winters.

“We’re not going to risk a mass die-off,” Deputy Manager Cris Dippel said. “That’s not our goal, despite what some folks would say.”

Attorneys with the environmental law firm whose legal action prompted the release of the feeding-reduction plans said they’ll carefully evaluate the draft. It’s unclear if the strategies will actually work, especially given the high numbers of elk drawn to the refuge over the last several years.

“Part of the problem is they have let 12 years go by without doing anything,” Earthjustice Managing Attorney Tim Preso said. “It’s a shame that we’re now in a position where all this stuff that we could have been addressing over 12 years is playing out in real time with chronic wasting on the doorstep of the refuge.

“It’s frustrating that this is the result of this course of conduct,” he said. “But that’s water under the bridge. We’ve got to start from today, and at least this is a start.”

Because the step-down plan was prepared cooperatively with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest and because it contemplates making changes off of the refuge, that document is not open to being altered through the current public review process, Spomer said. An accompanying, narrower “environmental assessment,” rather, is what the public has the opportunity to shape at this time.

“The EA is specific to the refuge and the actions that we can take,” Dippel said. “It talks about us and the delay and how we would do that.”

Comments on the plans are being accepted for 30 days, meaning they’ll be due in to the National Elk Refuge by Oct. 30. They can be emailed to nationalelkrefuge@fws.gov.

Earthjustice’s agreement with Fish and Wildlife, which keeps the lawsuit at bay, is to release a final environmental assessment and “finding of no significant impact” document by the end of the calendar year. The feeding program could then be altered for the coming winter.

One Wyoming agency that’s had qualms about the plans in the past is Game and Fish. Brian Nesvik, its director, told the News&Guide this summer that he disapproves of the plans as currently construed, and there were no subsequent substantial changes.

“We are not on board with its current form,” Nesvik said in an August interview. “We are on board with continuing to work with them.”

Brad Hovinga, who supervises the regional Game and Fish office, said Tuesday that many of his colleagues throughout the state will be involved in critiquing the plans.

“I’m the only person who’s had any involvement with the Fish and Wildlife Service and Park Service in the development of the plan,” Hovinga said, “and it’s been a very superficial involvement.

“It hasn’t been reviewed by others in the agency,” he said, “and it will be very important for others to review.”

Another possible outcome of the current planning process, federal legal council has told the Elk Refuge, is that comments received could compel the refuge to prepare yet another environmental impact statement. That would mean starting at square one and reinitiating the same level of yearslong analysis that led to where the refuge is today.

“We can’t be prejudgmental or predecisional,” Dippel said. “We just have to let this play out.”

The refuge’s draft feeding reduction plan and complementary environmental assessment are attached to the online version of this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com.

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 since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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