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.

Todd Wilkinson writes his column weekly for the News&Guide and is author of “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.”

Since moving to Jackson Hole in 1992, Richard has covered everything from local government and criminal justice to sports and features. He currently concentrates on arts and entertainment, heading up the Scene section.

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(3) comments

Nanci Nydegger

I have GREAT FEAR for our Future Generation. I am neither for the Wolf Hunters nor for the Save the Wild Life Predators by keeping them Captivated. Wolves and many other Wildlife Predators ( Tigers, Lions, Bears, Mountain Lions, Ect.....) are on the top of the food chain in the Wilderness for a very good reason. They are there to weed out the sick & diseased Elk, Deer, Ect... For this reason they protect US from eatting diseased meat. The Forrest & Wilderness should NEVER be sold or for Ranchers to place Livestock on. Ranchers are putting there Livestock at risk for being attacked if they insist on placing them where Wildlife Predators have the ONLY place to Live in the Forrest & Wilderness. There are so many things going on right that is Polluting the Earth that taking away the Wolves & Wildlife Predators and placing Livestock on Forrest & Wilderness Land is " THE PERFECT" mix to causing and bringing thousands of Diseases that will spread among the Human Race World Wide. Viruses will make millions of people so sick that Medical Science will never be able to find a cure for the thousands of viruses no less try to stop them all in the end MANKIND will become EXTINCTED. We need to stop the Killing of ALL WILDLIFE PREDATORS & STOP PLACING LIVESTOCK IN THE FORREST & WILDERNESS, STOP MESSING WITH WHAT "GOD" INTENDED IN THE BEGINING OF TIME ! If we don't stop now, we are putting our own flesh & blood at GRAVE RISK of dieing a slow & painful DEATH of Diseases & PLAGUE"s of VIRUSES.

Johanna Duffek-Kowal

Now, isn't it a GOOD thing that up to now research was not able to prove a direct link betweed CWD-infected game and hunters gettng sick of Kreutzfeld-Jacob-disease, similar to the spread of scrapie in sheep or mad cow disease to, among other species, human consumers of infected tissue...?
And isn't it just LOGICAL to reduce wolf populations, additionally predating on game populations already doomed to decline because of wide-spread CWD, aside from large-scale habitat pollution and devastation?
Or COULD it possibly be that there is something basically wrong with the whole concept of "wildlife management BY hunters FOR hunters, with strong consideration of livestock industry"?

Marion Dickinson

The problem seems to have started in the 60s when researchers in northern Colorado were researching scrapie in deer. There used to be considerable information about the disease and the fact one of the deer they were experimenting with that had developed CWD was inadvertently released. Most of that information has been scrubbed from the internet. It is too bad, that may give us a clue to the potential movement of the disease. If the information about that research and the subsequent release has not been destroyed even from the facility, there may be important information about how it really spreads. It seems to me that there is far more potential for the spread of disease from infected tissue carried by scavengers, both winged and footed.

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