National Elk Refuge count

Elk roam the Nowlin feedground in 2017  during the annual classification on the National Elk Refuge.

Although a shift in the bison- and elk-feeding regime on the National Elk Refuge could mark the most substantial change in the controversial program’s 107-year history, the move has triggered little public reaction so far.

The plan’s goal is to eventually cut the volume of alfalfa-based pellets distributed each winter in half and even halt feeding altogether during average winters. The prescription for getting there is mostly based on manipulating when feeding begins and ends.

During the coming winter, the first season affected, the feeding start date would be delayed by a matter of “days” and end a week or so earlier.

The deadline for the public to comment on the plan is Wednesday. Interest so far — through the first 28 days of the one-month comment period — has been scant.

“We’ve got our five public comments,” Elk Refuge Deputy Manager Cris Dippel said. “I would have thought that we were going to have a little bit more feedback.”

Agency and nongovernmental organization comments will likely pour in right around the deadline, Dippel said.

Refuge officials originally sought much more elaborate public engagement that included meetings, but the circumstances for how the supplemental feed weaning plans were released nixed the more involved process.

After being delayed for years, largely because of negotiations with the state of Wyoming, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was sued by Earthjustice for failing to implement a 12-year-old plan that called for lower elk numbers on the refuge and reduced feeding.

Late this summer, the federal agency and U.S. Department of Justice attorneys reached an agreement with Earthjustice. The refuge agreed to issue a draft environmental assessment by Sept. 30, field public comments through October and then produce final plans by the end of the calendar year — in time to enact them for the coming feeding season.

If Fish and Wildlife fails to meet those commitments, the lawsuit is back on, Earthjustice attorneys say.

Government-organized feeding to help wild ungulates survive winter was once commonplace in the American West, but the practice has largely fallen away. The National Elk Refuge and 22 Wyoming-run feedgrounds, which nourish 20,000-plus elk annually, represent the largest complex of feeding operations remaining in the United States.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has asked Wyoming to stop feeding out of concern the practice could accelerate the spread of chronic wasting disease to wild herds in Montana. But Wyoming hunting outfitters and ranchers strongly support feeding as a tool to prop up elk populations and keep wapiti off of private lands where haystacks and feedlines are meant for cattle.

Pitfalls that make feeding controversial include the increased spread of disease, short-stopped migrations and the expense of feeding thousands of elk annually.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has publicly opposed the refuge’s plans to reduce feeding. The state agency through Monday morning had not sent in a formal comment, Dippel said, but Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told the News&Guide this summer that “we’re not on board with its current form.”

“You have to have landowner tolerance [to do this],” Nesvik said at the time, “and I don’t see how you can prescribe that.”

The Jackson Hole ranching community is largely not interested in changing the feeding regime, said Max Ludington, a LegacyWorks Group regional director who has been engaging landowners from Spring Gulch to the Buffalo Valley about elk conflict issues.

“When the step-down plan does come up, I think there’s opposition to it,” Ludington said. “People are concerned about increased damage on their property.”

Spring Gulch cattleman Brad Mead is one person who breaks from the ranching pack, saying he would be open to making near-term changes like abbreviating the feeding season.

“It doesn’t honestly seem to be a big deal, in my mind,” Mead said Monday.

Like others, Mead has largely checked out of the refuge planning process.

“I don’t know, maybe I got feeding fatigue,” Mead said. “It’s a very difficult problem, and I think it’s taking a long time to sort out how to address it.”

Ludington said that, deserved or not, the refuge feeding issue has earned a reputation for being so litigious that local input is not consequential to decisions being made.

“Even if it’s not the case,” he said, “that’s the perception.”

Comments on the feeding plans, attached to the online version of this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com, are due to the refuge by Wednesday and can be emailed to nationalelkrefuge@fws.gov.

Two documents are actually on the table. One is the draft “step-down” plan, which tiers off of a 2007 plan that established the feeding-reduction goals and was developed collaboratively with other federal agencies and Wyoming Game and Fish. The second document is an environmental assessment, required by the National Environmental Policy Act, which is narrower in scope and outlines only steps that can be taken on the 24,778-acre refuge. It is only the environmental assessment that the refuge has the ability to change at this time, Dippel said.

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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