Elk Feedgrounds

Justin Bielby and Jay Hoggan drive their team out to feed elk at Patrol Cabin Feedground last winter. Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission has asked its Wyoming counterparts to stop the practice, which is thought to spread disease.

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.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067, env@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGenviro.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

(3) comments

Robert Wharff

This is ridiculous. This issue has already been looked at and addressed. Montana Parks and Wildlife is asking Wyoming to do something that would result in a reduction of around 80% of the elk. No one felt comfortable estimating how much of an impact eliminating feed grounds would have on other big game animals but everyone agreed that it would have an adverse effect across the board.
All of this to address something that is not a given. A former G&F Commissioner once said that the cure for the disease cannot be worse than the disease itself. Eliminating feed grounds was considered by the Wyoming Governors Brucellosis Task Force. While the decision wasn't unanimous, the majority of the Task Force believed the feed grounds were beneficial to managing Brucellosis as it kept elk from comingling with livestock.
The Montana Parks and Wildlife Commission is asking the Wyoming G&F Commission to do something that has very severe consequences for the State. I'm not sure they truly understand what it is that they are asking our Commission to do.

Jeffrey Walker

The elk face a diabolical choice. Starve to death during the winter, due to stupid human decisions, or waste away from a prion-related disease. Not sure exactly how mass winter starvation will eliminate CWD other than just to eliminate the elk. I'm not a wildlife biologist but seems like something is missing here in the argumentation for reversing a decades-old practice of feeding the elk in the winter. It will not be pleasant for Jacksonites to witness mass starvation in the Refuge.

Jay Westemeier

You're right Mr. Walker about the elk facing a diabolical choice. The perceived success of eliminating feeding rests on the hope that the elk will disperse into smaller herds and that there are no successive hard winters. It's a shame that it took a disease to finally bring states and their wildlife management to their senses on concentrated elk feeding. This practice, which was started for the sole benefit of a group of powerful area ranchers, has turned into a potential nightmare for the elk. Hopefully, a solution to restoring historical fall elk migration routes to the south will be found soon, and the elk will somehow be able to use their genetic instincts to start using those routes again. As long as the current population levels of elk remain trapped in Jackson Hole during winters, their long term outlook looks grim.

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