Alkali Creek feedground

Elk once gathered on the Alkali feedground each winter to receive daily rations of hay. The Bridger-Teton National Forest recently decided to end use of the site after a 5-year-long use as an "emergency" feedground, but that decision is now caught up in court. 

Federal land managers keep getting sued for authorizing elk feedgrounds in the face of a deadly disease, with the most recent lawsuit targeting feeding operations near Bondurant and up the Gros Ventre and Greys Rivers.

Four environmental groups came together to sue the U.S. Forest Service last week over the Dell Creek, Forest Park and Alkali Creek feedgrounds, which are used by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The complaint, like others recently challenging elk feeding, charges that managers are violating environmental laws by continuing to feed elk while chronic wasting disease spreads throughout western Wyoming and further into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“Both the Forest Park and Dell Creek feedgrounds lie along the migratory paths of mule deer, which are significant vectors for the transmission of CWD,” the complaint said. “Indeed, studies of radio-collared mule deer have demonstrated that members of three different mule deer herds — the Sublette, Northern Wyoming range, and Steamboat herds — migrate through the areas of the Forest Park and Dell Creek feedgrounds on their way to the National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park.”

An always-fatal disease with no cure, CWD has not yet been found in western Wyoming elk, but its looming threat has been a focal point of recent litigation targeting the phaseout of feeding operations at the National Elk Refuge. It was also a major issue in a recent legal battle over the Alkali feedground, which is being challenged again.

Colorado-based Eubank and Associates filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming on behalf of the Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Gallatin Wildlife Association and Western Watersheds Project.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest oversees the feedgrounds being challenged. A spokesperson declined to comment, citing U.S. Forest Service policy for active litigation.

The Alkali Creek feedground is the lowest of three elk feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre River drainage, and it’s used to prevent the drift of animals down toward the Elk Refuge, where numbers are well over objective. It has been challenged repeatedly inside and outside the courtroom over the last decade, dating to when it accidentally overlapped with the Gros Ventre Wilderness and boundaries had to be redrawn. Environmental groups sued and won in 2018, when U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Freudenthal faulted forest managers for failing to take a “hard look” at phasing out feeding and the implications of promoting the spread of CWD.

“There is no question that Alkali Creek feedground could become a reservoir for CWD infection,” she ruled, “if it becomes established in elk populations in northwest Wyoming.”

Remanded back to the Forest Service, officials announced last fall that they would stop using the Alkali feedground, with the exception of “emergency” use over the next five years on just 5 of its 91 acres. The Bridger-Teton also OK’d the use of the groomed Gros Ventre Road to lead elk from Alkali Creek toward the Patrol Cabin feedground using flakes of hay.

Last week’s lawsuit takes aim at this decision, which was made without significant study by using an exclusion to the National Environmental Policy Act for projects under 5 acres.

“Remarkably, the agency reached this 5-acre determination despite proposing to use a ‘feedline three feet wide and approximately 5.3 miles in length’ between Alkali Creek and Patrol Cabin,” the complaint said. “Nowhere in the memo did USFS explain how a five-mile long, three-foot wide trail, potentially visited by hundreds of elk that themselves range between six and eight feet long, would fit within its proposed five-acre footprint.”

Challenges of the Dell Creek and Forest Park elk feedgrounds assert that the Bridger-Teton improperly permitted their use indefinitely, without necessary study under NEPA. The effects of feeding elk at Forest Park along the Greys River were last assessed in 1980. The Bondurant-area Dell Creek feedground has never been assessed, the complaint said, and also has been operating with twice as many elk as permitted.

Organized elk feeding in northwest Wyoming is a historic activity, and it started more than a century ago on the National Elk Refuge to stave off mass die-offs from a series of severe winters. Feeding programs elsewhere in the West have largely been abandoned, as wildlife management has moved away from a practice that spreads disease, curtails migrations and inflates numbers above the natural carrying capacity of the landscape. But the refuge and Game and Fish’s 21 feedgrounds — which together constitute the largest remaining feeding complex — are still used to separate elk from cattle, prevent conflict and prop up numbers.

Environmental attorneys have asked a federal judge to prohibit use of the Dell Creek, Forest Park and Alkali Creek feedgrounds until the Bridger-Teton has fulfilled its obligations under NEPA, the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act, National Forest Management Act and Administrative Procedure Act. The complaint is 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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