National Elk Refuge

Elk congregate during feeding on the National Elk Refuge in February 2017. The refuge, faced with a lawsuit, has committed to releasing a long-delayed feeding-reduction plan ahead of this winter. 

Federal wildlife officials aiming to avert a lawsuit are pledging to implement a long-delayed plan to wean the National Elk Refuge’s namesake animals off of supplemental alfalfa ahead of the upcoming feeding season.

The plan, first contemplated a dozen years ago, had remained tied up as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deliberated internally and with Wyoming managers over targets and goals. Now the threat of litigation has forced the agency to act.

On Monday, the federal government agreed to a “joint stipulation, motion and status report” that establishes deadlines that will keep Earthjustice, the plaintiff, at bay for now.

“What it boils down to is that they have an opportunity to complete this planning process by Dec. 31, and have a plan in place by the next feeding season in 2020,” Earthjustice Managing Attorney Tim Preso said Monday. “We have agreed to suspend litigation long enough to allow for them to seize that opportunity.”

Preso cautioned that the pact with the federal government is not a legally binding settlement agreement. If the Fish and Wildlife Service fails to keep its promise, he said, Earthjustice will resume its challenge.

The agreement to a “stay” on the litigation, acknowledged by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, establishes dates for a public process that will unfold this fall and winter. By Sept. 30, the National Elk Refuge will release a draft environmental assessment. Public comments will be fielded through the month of October, and then by Dec. 31 the refuge will produce a final step-down plan. That plan, the document says, will govern the elk feeding program this coming winter, an operation that typically begins in late January or early February.

Earthjustice said it was imperative that the refuge take action this winter.

“That was essential to us,” Preso said, “because we can’t continue business as usual with [chronic wasting disease] already in the valley.”

CWD was confirmed for the first time in Jackson Hole in November when a road-killed mule deer buck tested positive in Grand Teton National Park.

The ungulate disease has no cure, can live outside its animal hosts in vegetation and soil, and ripples through deer and elk populations at higher rates when animals are concentrated.

In a worst-case scenario, the refuge’s prized winter range will become an infected area where wildlife congregate, leading to the long-term decline of a diseased Jackson Elk Herd. But the fate of the refuge still remains uncertain since CWD and wild, fed elk have never before mixed.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s leadership say they expect to continue feeding elk in the face of the disease.

The National Elk Refuge, by contrast, is faced with a mandate to reduce elk numbers to 5,000 animals, a population that theoretically will allow the refuge to skip supplemental feeding in winters of average severity, and in doing so reduce densities and disease rates. A “step-down” plan that Fish and Wildlife has now committed to releasing outlines how to get there.

Although the draft step-down plan is not yet a public document, it has surfaced through records requests, and its contents have been made public.

The “principal strategy” that’s in the works, according to a 2017 draft plan, is delaying when alfalfa pellets begin hitting the ground.

The goal identified in that iteration of the plan is to cut elk feeding in half: Transitioning elk to freestanding forage will be achieved when the three-year running average of elk and bison “fed days” has fallen to 50% or less of current intensity for five years in a row.

The latest draft of the plan is dated this February, but differences between this document and the 2017 version are minimal, Preso said.

The draft plans, of course, could change if the National Environmental Policy Act planning process works as it’s supposed to.

“Like any public process, public comment and how we respond to it will dictate how much the plan needs to be modified,” said refuge biologist Eric Cole, who’s stepping in as interim refuge manager while the longer-term acting manager, Cris Dippel, is out of town.

The refuge will be short-staffed as it makes the push to release the plans and implement deadlines agreed to by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The refuge’s manager, Brian Glaspell, took a promotion, departed in July, and no replacement has been named. Longtime public outreach staffer Lori Iverson also retired this month.

“Basically, we’re down two of our 10 full-time employees,” Cole said.

On the plus side, he said, Fish and Wildlife’s regional office is devoting some staff to assist in the planning effort.

As a two-decade-long refuge veteran whose finger is on the pulse of the refuge’s biological health, Cole said he’s eager to get the step-down plan out the door and implemented.

“I think the step-down plan is likely our best chance to take any meaningful action to reduce the potential effects of catastrophic disease on the refuge,” Cole said, “but of course it’s going to take the cooperation of other agencies and public buy-in.”

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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(10) comments

Richard Jones

I often wonder how all the wildlife survived for thousands of years without management.


Ken Chison

Richard. In case you didn't know, dinosaurs and wooly mammoths are extinct now. No management I guess. But, even back then, they didn't have to be worried about all their habitat being swallowed up for private mansions by the elitists.


Ken Chison

Yet nobody looks at the real issue at hand. If anyone thinks that Earth Justice or the Sierra club worries about the environment, or the animals, they are all but crazy. they are nothing more than money making businesses that have figured out how to manipulate the government out of hundreds of millions of dollars by suing them. A little old law on the book known as the equal access to Justice act is what their conniving lawyers have figured out and turned into a business. Why do you think these supposed guardians of the environment sue the government regardless of what the government does? They get reimbursed 100% by the government for their supposed lawsuits. A law that was originally established for the common Joe to have an avenue to go for being wronged by the government is now being totally exploited and abused. Look at it the salaries that these organizations pay their supposed hierarchy. You think that's all from donations? Thankfully, barrasso and Cheney both are shining a spotlight on this law and the corrupt organizations that are abusing it. I urge all concerned sportsmen to contact their representatives, in whichever State they live, and ask for reform on this bill. one can almost rest assured, that, if the feds have started weaning the elk off 10 years ago, Earth Justice would have been suing them for that as well.


Jay Westemeier

I bet you would work for free if you were one of their lawyers or lobbyists. Keep in mind that there are millions of "average Joes" who are members of those organizations. And no, I'm not one of them.


Terry Schramm

Weaning is just a euphemism for starving. Sad.


Lanny Lammers

Well as Reported THE PUBLIC will be a Heavy Influence on this Plan. First it is INCORRECT that CWD was discovered in November, I found & reported a cow with it in 2010 AND back then HEADS were Deposited in Barrels on the Refuge to Check for CWD! It makes me believe many other CWD cases were found before & after the one I reported. Its NOT CONTAGIOUS, It is worm that gets in the Deers Nose & enters the brain! SO why is EARTHJUSTICE using absurd plans to have only 5000 Elk & starve them? Very jealous & strange uneducated people. WE NEED TO STAND UP to Protect Our Elk from Earthjustice! We can feed the Elk Farther north east or west BUT FEED THEM. Don't let some New World Order Banksters Lawyers Designate all the land for wildlife & then Starve the Wildlife. The Court needs to tell Earthjustice to get out of Human& Wildlife Management !


Roger Hayden

CWD contagious and will spread fast among elk crowded on feed grounds. Wyoming's elk population is well above the objective set by the state's wildlife managers. Elk in Wyoming can survive winters without artificial feeding as they do in other states.


Terry Schramm

This is going to be a disaster and I want you to personally accept responsibility.


Jay Westemeier

Mr. Schramm, will you personally accept responsibility if Northwest Wyoming's elk and mule deer are wiped out by CWD and the entire ecosystem is turned into a toxic land void of those ungulates for decades to come? Pick your poison.


Jay Westemeier

Mr. Lammers, Earth Justice isn't the only entity pushing for the elimination of feeding. Leading wildlife biologists and scientists have been advising this for years and you can't suggest that they are jealous or uneducated people. The residents of Jackson Hole have been trained to believe that the Elk Refuge must feed to ensure the survival of the area's elk. It's all they've known for their entire lives and many are scared to death of the unknown. Try to look at this as an experiment. If feeding completely stops and a couple of severe winters wipes out 50% of the area's elk population, I'm sure that federal and state agencies can change course and begin feeding again. As history has proven, the elk can and will recover from mass winter kill. The worst case scenario is that feeding continues and the expert's prediction of a CWD disaster actually happens. 80% of the elk population is wiped out over time while continuing to infect broader areas of the ecosystem which would basically make it entirely toxic to ungulates for decades. I believe this "experiment" is worth doing until more definitive research and conclusions can be made about this disease. You do know that northwest Wyoming's elk are considered to be the most diseased and weakened in the entire lower 48, even without CWD. Feed grounds have introduced a number of other diseases and conditions to the area's elk ever since they were implemented.


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