National Elk Refuge Count

Elk counters drive out to meet a feed tractor Tuesday morning at the Headquarters feedground on the National Elk Refuge in 2017. The National Elk Refuge is being sued for continuing business-as-usual elk feeding in violation of its guiding plan.

Environmental groups are suing the National Elk Refuge for business-as-usual elk feeding and failing to implement a 12-year-old plan.

On Monday, the environmental law firm Earthjustice — which has sued over Elk Refuge feeding before — filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club.

The suit claims “severe disease threats” and focuses on anticipated effects from chronic wasting disease, a lethal and incurable cervid sickness that showed up not far from the refuge boundary last fall.

Earthjustice had signaled that the lawsuit was coming by publicly writing Elk Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell in December, asking him to release a “step-down” plan detailing how the refuge will reduce elk numbers and feeding.

“There’s no real secret here,” Earthjustice managing attorney Tim Preso told the Jackson Hole Daily. “The letter asked them to do something and, as they have done for the last 11 years, they didn’t do anything. Now we’re asking a court to order them to take action that they promised.”

Earthjustice’s lawsuit asks a judge to force the Elk Refuge’s hand, by giving it 30 days to produce a detailed plan to reduce elk feeding.

The refuge completed an environmental impact statement in 2007 that prescribed management for the Jackson elk and bison herds jointly with Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest. A central component of the plan was to winnow wapiti wintering on the refuge down to 5,000 animals — a number that natural forage could sustain in a winter of average severity, models predicted.

Instead, elk numbers have increased as the herd has shifted its distribution to rely more on the refuge than ever before. During last year’s mild winter, despite skipping supplemental feeding, the refuge for the first time hosted almost the entire herd. This winter, however, refuge numbers fell off.

Chronic wasting disease’s arrival in Jackson Hole adds urgency to what many wildlife activists and scientists perceive as an impending ecological disaster. The incurable prion disease can live in soil and grass, cannot be removed from an outdoor environment and was found for the first time in the valley last fall in a road-killed mule deer buck just hundreds of yards from the refuge’s northern boundary.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission is to manage for healthy habitat and healthy wildlife,” Sierra Club employee and elk feeding critic Lloyd Dorsey said Monday. “They’ve got hoof rot on the refuge, which is deadly. They’ve got brucellosis on the refuge, which makes elk and bison chronically ill. And now CWD is in the valley, which is always lethal for deer, elk and moose.

“The best time to change management that concentrates elk in unhealthy densities is before a lethal disease arrives,” Dorsey said. “It’s high time now to implement the change that they committed to in 2007.”

The 20-page legal complaint, which draws on internal communications acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, describes the state of Wyoming as the primary force slowing the release of the refuge’s step-down plan.

“The service’s delay in issuing the long-promised plan has been largely due to the service’s deference to objections by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department,” the lawsuit says. “The Service has thus effectively given the Wyoming Game and Fish Department a veto over issuance of the supplemental feeding phase-out plan.”

Elk feeding is a highly controversial and politicized issue, and decisions about releasing a step-down plan are not being made locally.

When asked about the status of the step-down plan Monday, Glaspell said, “I don’t know.”

Despite the lawsuit, Preso said he hopes the long-promised plan will be produced outside of the courtroom.

“I’m sure that the refuge and the people of the Fish and Wildlife Service don’t want their legacy to be management that created a chronic wasting disease toxic zone,” Preso said. “I’m hopeful that this will nudge them into action. They have the opportunity to respond to this by doing what they should have done 11 years ago.”

Glaspell affirmed that internal discussions are underway.

“We’re still sorting out what exactly is going on and whether we’re engaged in a formal lawsuit,” the refuge manager said. “I met with Tim [Preso] in Bozeman, and I thought we had a very productive conversation and I think we generally share the same objectives. I don’t view him or his organization’s folks as adversaries. We’re just trying to figure out how to get this [plan] pushed through.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or

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.

(19) comments

Jay Westemeier

It's absolutely baffling that some of you guys actually seem to be satisfied with what is universally known as the most disease infested elk herd in the country. And that's without CWD being added in. You guys have basically been drooling over, hunting and eating diseased elk for years. In other words, you're addicted to garbage and have been hoodwinked by wealthy Jackson business owners.

Chad guenter

Mr. Westemeier: Maybe just worry about your own backyard.

Konrad Lau

Thank you, Sir.
Please note: In all of these discussions, hunting (more specifically increasing bag limits) is never mentioned.
The last sentence in the article you linked to states hunting to be an excellent tool for limiting over population of ungulate herds.

Konrad Lau

Here we find a classic Leftist response posing as discussion/commentary.

Panic, name-calling, intelligence-shaming, culture-shaming, no facts and unbelievable snobbishness are the basis of your reply.

None of the above tactics will ever change someone’s mind…but then you weren’t really interested in changing anyone’s mind, were you?

Jay Westemeier

First, I'm as far from a Leftist as anyone can be. And I know that there is absolutely no way that your mind can be changed. The elk could be completely wiped out by disease and you guys would still blame the government, wildlife advocates, and predators. You never look at yourselves or take blame for your inaction. You're always reactionary on everything that has to do with wildlife and seem to love bellyaching about everything. Malcontent absorbs your lives and is pitifully tiring. Time for me to jump in the Jeep and check out the local flood damage while you guys cry about a lawsuit that doesn't even affect you.

Konrad Lau

For further consideration, it was conservative efforts that first began wildlife conservation (see a vague connection?) programs in the United States. It is of no doubt that elk hunters in Wyoming founded the Elk Refuge Program back in 1912.
Once again, you resort to name-calling and avoiding the subject instead of presenting facts and/or solutions.
Everyone knows that expanding bag limits and season totals would quickly and humanly bring the elk population in hand.
No one seems willing to admit restricting hunting has severely impacted herd health.
Perhaps while you are riding around in your Jeep, broadening your carbon footprint and congratulating yourself on your benevolent wisdom, you may want to reflect on these facts.
Leftist law suits are the main reason inaction has come to this topic and others like it.

Jay Westemeier

Not sure where I called anyone names but I'm sorry if I hurt your tender feelings. You need to read some more history on the National Elk Petting Zoo before spreading the myth that hunters started it. Keep feeding your elk and reap what you sow. It's been the laughing stock of wildlife biologists and managers across the West for years. That's something to be really proud of.

Ken Chison

Amazing how all those diseased, infected garbage elk have been migrating for a 100+ years. And what's even more amazing, is, that they even survived after 2007. Just looked at the herd yesterday for about an hour. Only saw 3 with mange and I looked em over from both sides of the refuge. What does it matter how they die. All the dumb people want to starve them to death, beings they have no place to migrate to. What difference does it make if it's by cwd or starvation. They've been screaming this narrative for 15 years, yet no cwd on any feed ground in Wyoming. It's almost like the loons want it to show up. I've been around long enough to know that sportsman will not let these elk starve. Years back they quit feeding, and sportsman groups rallied together and loads of hay started showing up in Jackson. This will happen again and I pity any environmental terrorist that tries to stop them. I put a package of those diseased, garbage infested butterfly steaks out on the counter last night. Can't wait.

Jay Westemeier

The big difference between the people you call "loons" and yourself is that they care about the long range future of the elk and not just what's in your freezer this year. It's lazy hunters and the Jackson elite who are satisfied with the status quo of domesticated and unhealthy elk.

Ken Chison


Jay Westemeier

That's exactly the problem. You keep sleeping and complaining while others are actually trying to preserve wildlife for your kids and grandkids. Your complacency epitomizes the irresponsible actions of the early pioneers of the region.

Terry Schramm

When they stop feeding and thousands of elk die and elk disperse into neighborhoods make sure Tim Preso and Lloyd Dorsey get all of the credit. Make them personally held accountable.

Konrad Lau

This sounds a lot like baby sharks eating their brethren in the womb.

On the one hand, we have a group of caring, concerned citizens wanting to preserve wildlife in their home range (I thought that was a good thing.).
On the other hand, we have a group of caring, concerned citizens striving to preserve wildlife in their home range using mass die-offs through starvation.


Perhaps they should sue the local wolf packs for not holding up their end of the deal. After all, the main idea of the reintroduction of wolves to the area besides adding to the biologic diversity of the area was to strike a “balance” (as determined by some nebulous body of enlightened beings) between the ungulates and predators. This plan would have eliminated the dreaded hunters in the area (We all hate hunting, right? Those primitive uncouth beasts…), provided natural food sources for the wolves and provided a “natural” herd management for the elk, deer and moose as well as rabbits, voles, chipmunks and gophers. In addition, by being chased over the hinterlands by wolves, they would never congregate in dense populations and spread diseases supposedly brought on by those densities.

Of course, once the wolves have decimated the elk, deer and moose herds, the poor bears will have to resort to garbage cans, parked RVs and dumps. Maybe we could get the bears to register for a Food Stamp Program and they could just pick up supplies at the Albertson’s…as long as they (the supplies) are organic.

In the great wide world of misconceived ideas, this is a perfect example of an incredibly misguided set of ideas based in compassion.

Question: When folks ultimately are successful in banning the hunters and fishers, where will all those dollars currently invested in environmental projects come from? I know, we’ll raise a tax on the rich, of course.

Daniel Ewert

Interesting comments here. The Equal Access to Justice Act does not provide for recovery of attorney's fees unless the party prevails and the government's defense of the case "was not substantially justified." With respect to the current case, hopefully they can all reach an agreement and make progress on doing something about chronic wasting disease.

Ken Chison

Yes Daniel. That is why judge shopping is so important to them in advance. The law was never originally established for groups like Earth Justice to take advantage of. But they have gotten around it by putting one person's name on the suit. Slime bag lawyers that know the best ways to cheat. Change the law. Now.

Daniel Ewert

Are you saying that venue in the U.S. District Court in D.C. is not appropriate for suit against a national refuge? If there was no proper venue the case would be dismissed. I'm not convinced you have thoroughly analyzed what the law was intended to do. In any event, the issue here is chronic wasting disease and finding solutions to limit the spread of it.

Ken Chison

This is another result of stupid people trying to dictate what they think is best for all. Ever wonder why Earth Justice is so sue happy? Ever wonder where all their money comes from? Heck. They boast about having 130 lawyers on hand. Well folks. Here's the gig. A little old law enacted in 1980 that was actually set up for citizens of modest means to sue government agencies. It's called The equal Access to Justice Act. Well, these fine people at Earth Justice have found loopholes in the law, and now get the hard working taxpayers to pay for their 130 lawyers. And it doesn't come cheap. Upwards of 600 dollars an hour for some of these Earth Justice lawyers. So, they are actually able to make money off of sueing the government. I urge every conservation minded, normal, hunting, outdoor using person that reads this, to tell your friends about this scam. Then, I beg you to call your elected officials and urge reform on the E A J A. Once their Cash cow goes away, you will find out how much they really don't care about the animals or the environment. And don't forget those Earth Justice directors. Upwards of 200,000+ dollars a year, and a large portion of that is from people opposing what they are doing.

Chad guenter

Judge shopping. This is the same thing that addicts do with Doctors until they either find a stupid or corrupt one.

Konrad Lau

The problem is: Judges are at their roots, are politicians.
When was the last time you heard of a politician promising any and everything to be elected?
Let me rephrase that: Are you happy with your doctor and your health insurance?

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