Slopes have been unseasonably open and brown for weeks, but in places where elk chronically commingle with cattle, the hay is already hitting the ground in Wyoming’s feedlots.
The purpose is to draw wapiti away from private lands before they grow dependent on feed meant for cows. So in places like the Bondurant-area Dell Creek Feedground, the Black Butte feedlot north of Pinedale and the elk feeding areas along the Gros Ventre River, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is already distributing hay.
“The problem is elk getting into cattle feedlines,” said John Lund, a Game and Fish regional supervisor who oversees the Pinedale area.
“Some of our feedgrounds, we can really push the envelope as far as delaying it as long as possible,” he said. “Others, they have to be more preemptive so we’re not dealing with conflict all winter long. In some areas, once elk are on private land, it can be really difficult to get them back to the feedground.”
That is the situation at Dell Creek, he said. Bondurant rancher and contracted elk feeder Kevin Campbell first dropped bales of hay there Nov. 12.
Mid-December is usually when snow in the high country gets deep enough that operations begin on Game and Fish’s 22 feedgrounds.
The average onset of feeding on the National Elk Refuge, where elk get alfalfa instead of hay, is significantly later — nearer the end of January. This year, the refuge’s elk dole may begin even later.
“Bottom line, we’re not even close to supplemental feeding initiation,” refuge biologist Eric Cole said.
Cole of late has seen an average of 50 elk, no bison and an inch of light snow on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service property north of Jackson. This time a year ago, in the early stages of a historic winter, there were 5,500 elk and 8 inches of dense snow.
Once elk and bison deplete the refuge’s grasses to 300 pounds an acre, Cole typically recommends that feeding begin. There’s 10 times that much forage right now, he said.
Mild weather also sometimes enables Game and Fish to hold off on feeding for longer, Lund said. The majority of the state’s feedgrounds — including one at South Park and three near Hoback Junction — are still vacant, with no hay out to entice elk. There’s a chance feedgrounds like Dell Creek could revert to that condition.
“Obviously, conditions are mild,” Lund said. “If things stay mild, those elk will disperse and leave, and we’ll be done feeding for a while. We certainly try to keep them out on native winter range as long as possible.”
Against the backdrop of the routine start to feeding wildlife in northwest Wyoming is a renewed call for doing away with the decades-old way of managing the 20,000-plus elk that inhabit the feedground zone.
The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, grappling with chronic wasting disease for the first time, has officially made that request to their Wyoming counterparts. Treasure State officials worry that feedgrounds will hasten the fatal malady’s spread across state lines.
Longtime feedground critic Lloyd Dorsey, the Sierra Club’s Wyoming conservation director, said the decision to feed early in a mild winter is a move “in the wrong direction.” The agency’s goal to abbreviate feeding, rather than end the practice, is wrongheaded, he said, if it wants to prevent the spread of disease.
“I think curtailing of a feedground season is pretty thin soup,” Dorsey said. “Because if several hundred or several thousand elk are clustered together for a couple weeks or several months, the infectious microbes would have plenty of opportunity to do their mischief — even in a truncated feeding season.”