COMMENTARY BY DR. DAVE SAMUEL | For The Dominion Post
In 1987, I left my wildlife professor job at WVU to do a six-month sabbatical in the wildlife program at Utah State University. It was a good experience and one of the perks was that three weekends a month, I traveled with the state with DNR biologists as they did research.
One of the things they thought I’d enajoy seeing was the winter feeding of wild elk at the Hardware Ranch. Each winter, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources feeds around 600 elk at the Ranch, and tourists go there to see them. They load people on hay wagons and take them right to the elk for a close-up view. The reason they’ve been winter feeding elk since 1945 is because the elk came in the city limits of nearby Hyrum during the winter and caused auto accidents. The city decided to feed elk outside the town to keep them there. That idea kept getting bigger and popular with people. No elk in town, more elk in the fall for hunters, more tourists going to see the elk, no commingling with local ranchers cattle. It appeared to be a win-win for everyone.
However, there is a growing negative, and that’s because of chronic wasting disease. Chronic wasting disease is a growing problem for deer and elk in many states and it is spread when animals are not practicing social distancing. Obviously, when you feed hundreds of wild elk in a small area, contact between individuals occurs. CWD is always fatal, so putting 600 elk in one area eating alfalfa hay for three months is a problem if any of those animals have CWD.
Fortunately, CWD is not a big problem in Utah, but as of June 9, 115 mule deer and two elk have tested positive for the disease. None are close to the Hardware Ranch, so no problem for the time being. However, officials there are concerned about the future of this traditional winter elk feeding.
Concern about winter feeding is much higher in Wyoming, where it is a bigger activity. The history of winter feeding goes way back in Wyoming. Elk migrate to valleys in the winter and as more and more settlers moved in with cattle, the elk competed for hay supplies. In addition, there was the need to keep cattle separate from elk because of the disease brucellosis. In 1912, a 24,700-acre National Elk Refuge was established, and the government’s goal was to have 5,000 elk wintering on the refuge in part to relieve the above-mentioned problems.
Now, there are between 6,000 and 7,000 elk there, but as many as 20,000 elk are fed there and on 22 other winter feeding grounds in three Wyoming counties. The state wildlife agency operates those feeding grounds and most have been in operation for 100 years. Obviously, these grounds draw in many tourists, especially near Jackson Hole.
The big difference for elk feeding in Wyoming, compared to Utah, is that Wyoming has a lot of CWD. Since 2008, the state wildlife agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the need to reduce or eliminate winter elk feeding because of CWD, but getting there was the tricky part.
Winter elk feeding impacts a number of stakeholders in Wyoming. Tourists and associated restaurants, hotels, etc. are impacted, especially at the Jackson Hole feeding ground. Local cattle ranchers who want to keep elk away their cattle are impacted. The U.S. Forest Service gives out feedground permits and they now want to reduce the number they issue, so they are impacted. The Grand Teton National Park is involved as is the National Elk Refuge. Environmentalists are concerned about the future health of the elk herds because of the spread of CWD, so they are impacted.
CWD was found near the Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge in 2018. No question it will enter the Elk Refuge in the relatively near, putting thousands of elk at risk. And when those elk leave the refuge in the spring, they will spread CWD far and wide in all directions.
In response to the plans proposed by the government to reduce feeding, environmental groups have filed various law suits in the past two years. All parties seem to understand the problem, but turning off a winter feeding system that has been in place for decades is a slow, biological, political, legal process. This winter, they have begun to shorten the feeding season and disperse elk more broadly.
My guess it will take years to completely stop the winter elk feeding programs. In the meantime, CWD will enter those elk and when the elk leave those grounds in the spring to return to their summer range, they will spread CWD even further. When those feeding programs in Utah and Wyoming were started years ago, no one could have suspected that things would become so complicated. Maybe the old saying, “It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature” applies here.
Dr. Samuel is a retired wildlife professor from West Virginia University. His outdoor columns have appeared, and continue to appear, in Bowhunter magazine and the Whitetail Journal. If you have questions or comments on wildlife and conservation issues, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.