About six weeks before flakes of hay would ordinarily start hitting the ground, the state is seeking a special temporary permit to continue feeding hundreds of elk at its Dell Creek Feedground.
The Bondurant-area elk feeding operation has occurred on about 35 acres of the Bridger-Teton National Forest for the past four-plus decades, but U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Freudenthal recently invalidated the feedground’s permit after finding that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department never formally applied to continue using the land. Then, last week, the state agency made the request to do just that, Wildlife Division Chief Rick King told the News&Guide.
“We’re waiting to hear back,” King said. “I’m not quite sure of the timeline, but they understand the timeline for winter weather and our typical start of feeding.”
Elk feeding at Dell Creek usually starts around Nov. 15.
Although Wyoming’s wildlife agency doesn’t yet have the permit in hand, King said he’s “fairly confident” it will be awarded in time.
The Dell Creek drainage is just one of 22 sites in western Wyoming where federal and state wildlife managers have fed elk for generations as a means of keeping elk off private ranchland and away from cattle. Allowing the two species to intermingle can risk spreading the disease brucellosis. Feedgrounds also prop up populations of elk that no longer migrate out of snowy areas like the Hoback Basin. But the wintertime practice is also considered antiquated and a proven spreader of disease, condemned by wildlife scientists, conservationists and even neighboring states.
Game and Fish is nearly two years into a four-year process to craft its first-ever elk feeding management plan. But ahead of its completion, Game and Fish has already indicated the plan won’t trigger the closure of any feedgrounds in the next five years, and potentially for longer. The Wyoming Legislature also recently passed a law that wrests authority to close feedgrounds from wildlife managers, giving it to Gov. Mark Gordon instead.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest declined an interview for this story, redirecting an inquiry to the U.S. Department of Justice. A public affairs officer for that federal agency did not return a phone call Tuesday.
One elk feeding proponent interviewed when Freudenthal’s ruling came did not anticipate that Game and Fish would get permits in time to feed elk near Dell Creek this winter.
“If they want to continue to use Dell Creek as a feedground, they’ve got to make an application, which triggers the whole process,” said Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association President Sy Gilliland, whose organization joined the litigation as an intervenor.
Based on his experience working with issues that require National Environment Policy Act analyses, Gilliland said that could take years.
Game and Fish is drafting plans in the event that a special temporary permit is not awarded in time. The contingency planning includes looking at potential sites to relocate the feedground, both to private land and elsewhere, King said.
“In terms of the immediate area it is mostly private land, but we’ll cast a broad net and explore all possible options,” he said.
The Dell Creek Feedground is one of two in the Hoback Basin, and the only one on the north side of Highway 191. That region is home to the Hoback Elk Herd, which is overpopulated. The state has set a “population objective” for the herd of 1,100 animals, but last year the estimate came in at 1,520 elk. Of those, 529 spent the winter of 2020-21 at the Dell Creek Feedground — a count that’s roughly double the long-term average.
Ceasing feeding and letting those elk fend for themselves in the months to come is not an option Game and Fish is considering, King said.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “There isn’t enough natural forage there for that number of elk, and they’ll immediately be into conflict with private lands and very significant human safety risks by potentially moving down toward the highway.”