Rocky Mountain elk are one of the stars of the show at Yellowstone National Park, a world-famous destination for wildlife viewing. Elk are a defining species for the natural and human communities surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Summer tourism is the primary engine of local economies, and the prospect of seeing elk — along with wolves, grizzly bears, moose and other charismatic wildlife seldom seen elsewhere — is what draws more than 3 million visitors to the region each summer. The antler arches in the Jackson Town Square and the bronze elk sculpture at the National Museum of Wildlife Art symbolize Jackson’s close affinity with this magnificent animal.

But now the elk of Yellowstone face the approach of chronic wasting disease, a fatal prion-based brain disease, much like mad cow disease, that targets members of the deer family. In this context the state of Wyoming’s politically driven and dysfunctional wildlife policies — state feedgrounds that concentrate elk at unnatural densities, combined with major reductions planned for wolf populations — are a recipe for disaster.

Historical accounts record elk migrations in the tens of thousands, following a migration corridor that took them past Pinedale and down the base of the Wind River Range to winter in the Red Desert. By the turn of the 20th century ranch development in surrounding valleys and overharvest of elk outside Yellowstone and Jackson Hole had eliminated these migrations to ancestral winter ranges. As a result, thousands of elk wintered in Jackson Hole. This human-caused disruption of the ecosystem resulted in the establishment of the National Elk Refuge.

The 22 state-run elk feedgrounds scattered around the periphery of Jackson Hole were established to benefit ranchers, not elk. The idea is to lure elk away from private ranches where ranchers raised and stored hay for cows and horses. When elk get into stored hay, ranchers call it “depredation,” but what it really amounts to is a native wildlife species adapting to a new food source and stopping short instead of migrating to the native bunchgrasses on their traditional winter ranges.

We’d like to see the elk return to their original winter ranges, dispersing themselves across the landscape. Thus, as chronic wasting disease penetrates the Yellowstone ecosystem, its spread would be slowed, and predators would have a chance to pick off infected animals and head off a major epidemic.

That’s where wolves come in. Wolves prey first on the weak and diseased, cutting the sickness out of the herd. Robust populations of wolves — nature’s tool for disease containment — are the best hope for minimizing chronic wasting disease once it hits the elk, deer and moose populations. Unfortunately the state of Wyoming’s ecologically unsound wolf management plan will result in a major reduction in wolf populations, just when the elk need them most. We need more wolves, not fewer.

And with the dwindling of private ranches in the Gros Ventre valley and the vacant and retired livestock allotments on surrounding national forest lands, conditions are rapidly improving, offering the potential to restore the much longer ancestral elk migrations.

For years hunter and conservation advocate Lloyd Dorsey has been warning about this impending disaster as chronic wasting disease approaches the Yellowstone ecosystem. There is no immune response and no known cure for this sickness. Now the deadly brain disease is at our doorstep, having reached Pinedale and Star Valley. Dorsey has been right all along, but thanks to political pressure from the ranching industry, Wyoming Game and Fish officials and Forest Service managers have ignored the need to act.

It’s not too late to seize the opportunity to prevent a die-off of elk that could spread across the entire Yellowstone ecosystem. It is time to shut down the feedgrounds so the elk remain dispersed and allow a natural increase in the wolf population to eliminate sick animals before they transmit wasting disease to others. The elk of Yellowstone deserve a fighting chance.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and serves as executive director for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group working to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife. WWP is currently challenging the legality of the Alkali state elk feedground. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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(4) comments

Sandra Goodwin

Robert Wharff

Where to begin? So much half-truths and misinformation.
How was the migration corridor disrupted when it never existed? The data is suspect, at best, that elk migrated from Jackson to the Red Desert.
Closing feed grounds will result in a much greater reduction, most estimates are around 80% whereas CWD will result in about 6% reduction.
The myth of wolves only killing the weak, sick and old has been debunked for quite a while now. What we know is wolves kill elk. If they cannot find one that is weak, old or sick they will harass the elk until one magically appears.
If the author truly believed wolves would remove CWD infected elk from the population where s the threat?

Chad guenter

Yes, Mr. Wharff. The authors bio should list politically motivated "activist" prior to wildlife biologist.

Sandra Goodwin

Welcome to the discussion.

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