Faced with a freshly arrived deadly elk and deer disease, Montana’s top wildlife officials have asked their Wyoming counterparts to stop the entrenched practice of elk feeding.
The request came in a letter the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission mailed to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission last week. Montana’s commission argues the feedgrounds will accelerate the spread of chronic wasting disease, and that those infected animals will migrate and commingle with Treasure State elk and deer, threatening big game herds across state boundaries.
“We respect the fact that how Wyoming manages its affairs is up to Wyoming,” the letter says. “However, Montana’s ability to combat CWD will depend upon decisions that Wyoming makes about its wildlife management.”
“As a commission, we believe that we cannot successfully address CWD without Wyoming’s help,” Montana commissioners wrote. “As your neighbor, we ask you to begin the process of closing these feedgrounds.”
Dan Vermillion, the Montana commission’s chairman, said in an interview that the disease’s arrival in Montana directly prompted the letter. In much of Wyoming, elk and deer herds have harbored the degenerative neurological condition for decades, but the incurable disease wasn’t confirmed across the state line until early November.
While Wyoming has taken a mostly hands-off, monitoring-based approach to CWD management, Montana wildlife managers promptly proposed and approved a late-season, 1,200-license deer hunt to map out where the disease is and determine its prevalence. Aggressive attempts at depopulating animals from the infected parts of the landscape could be in Montana’s future, Vermillion said.
“It’s a big sacrifice for the people of Montana to make,” Vermillion said. “If those feedgrounds are still out there, that will counteract any progress we make potentially down the road.”
Chronic wasting disease has never been detected in any of the 20,000-some elk that gather at Wyoming’s 22 feedgrounds and on the National Elk Refuge. But the malady is steadily inching nearer and has been detected in deer near Pinedale and in Star Valley. It is spread by almost indestructible “prions” that can survive outside their animal hosts in grasses and soil. Once contracted, it slowly turns elk and deer brains into sponges and causes their bodies to “waste” away.
In Vermillion’s view, the science is clear that the feedgrounds are a CWD vector, and one that could affect Montana big game. Past research intended to track the spread of brucellosis found that Madison Valley elk commingle with those from the Jackson Elk Herd in Yellowstone National Park, he said. There’s documented summer range interchange between Yellowstone’s Northern Range Elk Herd and animals that winter on the refuge.
“There’s a lot of crossover,” Vermillion said. “Both brucellosis and CWD spread more quickly when animals are unnaturally concentrated nose-to-nose eating pellets or hay.”
Vermillion emphasized that the letter was not a demand, but a respectful request to a neighbor to honestly consider phasing out the feedgrounds.
“I’m hopeful,” he said, “because I think the people of Wyoming love their wildlife as much as we do ours.”
Oilman and La Barge resident Mike Schmid is the Wyoming Game and Fish commissioner who lives nearest to the feedground complex. Reached Wednesday, he had not yet read Montana’s letter, and said it’s “hard to say” what the likelihood of a feedground phase-out is.
“Wyoming’s been feeding elk for many years, and in a lot of ways it’s been beneficial to the state,” Schmid said. “I think there’s got to be a lot more discussion before I could say one way or the other if there’s a potential for reducing feeding of the elk.”