Outfitters and guides in western Wyoming can rejoice. Businesspeople who make their living selling hunts of public elk, moose and deer to clients on federal public lands have won another battle.
But will their victory be long lived or Pyrrhic?
After lengthy delays punctuated by claims that its review was inadequate and approval preordained, Bridger-Teton National Forest announced this week it will allow the controversial Alkali Creek elk feedground to remain open through 2028.
The wildlife feedlot is located in the Gros Ventre River valley northeast of Jackson. It is on public land managed by Bridger-Teton but operated for decades by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Kathryn J. Conant, the national forest’s acting supervisor who will leave her post in February, penned a record of decision that critics say is unprecedented and historic but for all the wrong reasons.
Pulling no punches, Conant readily acknowledges that the spread of deadly chronic wasting disease is likely to be hastened by the widely condemned practice of bunching up thousands of wild elk around artificial feed.
“Concentrating elk at feedgrounds increases the frequency and duration of potentially infectious contacts among elk and between elk and the environment,” she wrote. “The arrival and spread of chronic wasting disease in elk in western Wyoming is likely to have population level impacts, after a time-lag, and the presence of feedgrounds as a whole is likely to accelerate the spread of the disease.”
Her position is informed by a blunt and arguably disturbing assessment of the CWD threat completed by Bridger-Teton biologist Tyler Johnson and included in the appendices of the Alkali Creek review.
Conant noted that, in addition, wapiti overgrazing at Alkali Creek has resulted in significant ecological damage to aspens, willows, shrubs, soils, wetlands and water quality. Critics say similar impacts can be found at the National Elk Refuge and Wyoming’s 21 other state-run feedgrounds.
In spite of this and invoking the administrative discretion she possesses, Conant granted approval for Alkali Creek to continue for another 13 years, rejecting the “environmental” alternative that would have shut the feedground down.
The action is historic because it represents, for the first time, a senior public land manager in the Greater Yellowstone admitting that feedgrounds probably will make any outbreak of chronic wasting disease worse.
It corroborates what feedground critics, including prominent disease experts and former elk refuge officials, have been saying for years: Wyoming’s wapiti chow lines, intended to bolster unnaturally high elk numbers and to keep elk infected with brucellosis away from private cattle pastures, will speed the infection of chronic wasting disease to elk, deer and moose throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and into both Montana and Idaho.
Up until now, outfitters and Wyoming Game and Fish Department have downplayed the probability of chronic wasting disease striking feedground animals.
Conant’s words characterize the arrival of CWD as inevitable, with attempts to contain it requiring a coordinated response from all land managers in the tri-state region.
Though only a small part of the decision, one instructive passage is found in the following paragraph: “Any hay or straw used in association with this permit must be certified and tagged as noxious weed or noxious weed seed free,” Conant writes. “The Wyoming Game and Fish Department will use certified weed-free hay to minimize the potential introduction of noxious weeds.”
How ironic that supreme vigilance is required to halt the progression of noxious weeds but little proactive prescriptions are mandated to mitigate the spread of a noxious, virulent and always deadly pathogen hastened by the feedgrounds themselves. Experts say prions that cause CWD are also likely to contaminate soil, creating a persistent biohazard impossible to remove.
Last week, in an op-ed that appeared in the News&Guide, conservationist Lloyd Dorsey, of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, pointed out that 10,000 elk are being fed (at a cost totaling many millions over the years) to allegedly protect 700 cattle in Teton County.
“This decision that, once again, favors cows over elk is perfect for pathogens and a monumental missed opportunity,” Dorsey said. “It fast-tracks this horrific disease into the heart of the ecosystem.” There is no unified CWD action plan, though land managers are shooting elk on sight suspected of being sick.
A copy of Conant’s decision can be found at FS.USDA.gov. Go to the Bridger-Teton National Forest page on the site and click on News and Events.