Elk crossing Highway 89

An elk crosses in front of traffic on North Highway 89 in December between East Gros Ventre Butte and the National Elk Refuge. The refuge has finalized its plans for weaning the elk herd off of supplemental feed. 

With some last-minute changes being made to satisfy the state of Wyoming, the National Elk Refuge is moving forward with a 5-year plan to start whittling down its historic elk-feeding program.

A document outlining the long-delayed changes, dubbed a “step-down” plan, is supposed to achieve goals that were established in an overarching plan some 13 years ago: reducing elk numbers to 5,000 and skipping supplemental alfalfa feeding during average winters.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in its draft plan to alter the protocol for beginning to feed by the onset of the annual program this winter, but now changes have been delayed until spring.

“This approach will provide an opportunity to monitor elk and bison behavioral responses to reduced feeding and identify private land conflict areas that may require focused management measures,” Fish and Wildlife officials wrote in an addendum to its final step-down plan, which was posted Dec. 31.

Delaying when feeding begins in the winter was identified as the “principal strategy” in a draft step-down plan that dates to last fall. At the earliest, that delay now won’t happen until the winter of 2022-23.

Until then, the refuge and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will continue business as usual in early winter, hazing elk and starting feeding to keep them from fleeing to adjacent lands such as Spring Gulch and its cattle ranches.

The final version of the step-down plan was released on the last day of 2019. The timing was because of an agreement with Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that sued last summer, asking a federal judge to force the refuge to release the plan.

The 2007 bison and elk management plan was supposed to have a 15-year life-span, but through the 13 winters since the elk goal was established, wapiti numbers averaged 7,100 and little progress was made to wean the herd off feed. Part of the reason is that the 11,000-animal Jackson Elk Herd has redistributed, and a historically high proportion of the herd has been using the refuge in recent years.

The step-down has been completed in draft form for several years, but its public release was put off time and again.

An influential party has been the state of Wyoming and its Game and Fish Department, and resistance from the state persisted until just days before the final plan’s release.

In mid-November, Gov. Mark Gordon asked for the feds to start from scratch in a letter addressed to Trump Administration appointee and valley resident Rob Wallace, who oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the U.S. Department of the Interior. The governor charged that the current analysis “falls short.”

“The bison and elk plan is more than a decade old,” Gordon wrote, “and I strongly encourage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiate a new National Environmental Policy Act analysis.”

The request was not immediately granted, though Fish and Wildlife is planning to begin a new planning process as soon as 2022 or 2023.

The final step-down plan was framed as a 5-year plan, a span that was not included in the draft document.

Another provision added is language that allows the refuge to default to business-as-usual feeding.

After the governor’s letter, Fish and Wildlife and Wyoming Game and Fish personnel held a Dec. 16 phone call to try to smooth over differences about the plans. The conversations resulted in “several changes” to the step-down plan, the environmental assessment and the finding of no significant impact, according to the environmental assessment.

Game and Fish’s regional supervisor, Brad Hovinga, said Thursday he’s “not in a position to say” whether his agency now supports the plans, deferring to his director’s office in Cheyenne. Hovinga did say Game and Fish agreed to work with the refuge to implement the changes in order to keep litigation at bay.

Other components of the plan are unchanged since a draft was released in October. The overall objective is to reduce the volume of elk and bison “feed days” to 50% or less of the baseline number for five years in a row. In other words, if the volume of pellets distributed is roughly halved, the goal will be met.

Because of weather, it’s impossible to say exactly when the 108-year-old elk feeding program will first be affected by the new plan, but refuge biologist and acting manager Eric Cole expects it likely won’t be until mid-March. The refuge has historically fed elk for about 70 days a year, ending the program in early April, but the termination this year could come a couple of weeks earlier.

Cole was hopeful the final version of the step-down plan could work to achieve the refuge’s goals, though he acknowledged success will likely be at the mercy of uncontrollable forces.

“I think we’ll be aggressive in our strategy as conditions allow,” Cole said, “but I can’t predict how aggressive we’ll be able to be in that 5-year span because it’s dependent on winter severity and how the elk actually react to what we’re doing.

“This has never been tried before,” he said, “and there’s a great deal of uncertainty and that’s why we’re taking a cautious, conservative approach.”

At last count, Cole said, there are about 5,500 elk on the refuge, about average for this time of year. Snowpack depth is also near the long-term average.

Plenty of grass remains on the refuge — an estimated 1,900 pounds per acre — which means elk feeding is likely a ways off, he said.

Alfalfa pellets start hitting the ground when accessible grass depletes to around 300 pounds an acre, the status quo threshold for feeding on the National Elk Refuge.

Editor's note: The description of Rob Wallace's position has been modified in the online version of this story to clarify that he's an employee of the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

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

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.

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