Elk on a feedground in the Gros Ventre River drainage (provided/Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

A group of lawmakers has filed a bill that seeks to shift authority over elk feedground closures from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to the governor.

Seven co-sponsored filed House Bill 101 – Elk feedground closing requirements Tuesday.

It would require the governor to consider Game and Fish recommendations, Wyoming Livestock Board comments on those and input from the public. Four of the sponsors list ranching as at least one of their professions.

Close quarters on 23 western Wyoming winter feedgrounds will exacerbate the spread of incurable, fatal Chronic Wasting Disease, say conservation and environmental groups that have advocated for their closure. Game and Fish found the first feedground-herd elk infected with the disease after a hunter shot it Dec. 2, 2020 during the Grand Teton National Park elk reduction program, elevating alarm.

The bill establishes a transparent process for what would be a high-impact decision affecting more than just wildlife, said lead sponsor and cattleman Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale). “I want to make sure this is a discussion with all agencies that are involved,” he said.

“Let’s call it a multi-species decision,” Sommers said, noting that feedground closures would impact stockgrowers. “That’s not just a Game and Fish issue.”

Wyoming’s Sierra Club chapter director called the measure “a pretty terrible idea.”

The bill is “a classic case of legislators trying to micromanage in areas where they have no expertise,” said Connie Wilbert, Wyoming chapter director of the group. “They’re not wildlife experts, they’re not wildlife disease experts — nor is the governor.”

Committee action in March?

Sommers said he hopes the bill will be worked in committee when the Legislature reconvenes in March. In addition to its other provisions, HB 101 would require the Game and Fish Department to plan to relocate a feedground if permission to operate it on federal land is ended. Eight of the 22 state-run feedgrounds are on National Forest property, six are on Bureau of Land Management land.

The governor would have emergency authority to close a feedground for six months under the bill.

Bull elk on the National Elk Refuge. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Reps. Jamie Flitner (R-Greybull), Pat Sweeney (R-Casper) and John Winter (R-Thermopolis) plus Sens. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer), Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) co-sponsored the bill. 

Discovery of the Grand Teton infection prompted the manager of the National Elk Refuge to say he would raise the issue of the objective size of the 11,000-strong Jackson Elk Herd with state managers in the coming year. All told, some 20,000 elk populate the state’s 22 feedgrounds and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Elk Refuge in winter.

After the 2019 hunting season, Game and Fish estimated a statewide elk population of 112,900. Among the 28 herds with population estimates, counts came in 32% — 25,575 elk — above the statewide objective.

Game and Fish launched an initiative in December addressing the CWD-feedground issue. Officials have said they will not shut down any feedgrounds for at least a decade.

In addition to supporting an abundance of elk, feedgrounds draw  wildlife away from nearby ranches and highways. They also make up for wildlife habitat that’s been developed.

CWD is a cousin of Mad Cow Disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease in people. Caused by a malformed protein called a prion, it affects the central nervous system including the brain, spinal column and lymph nodes.

Sick individuals become emaciated, lethargic and drool, shedding prions in the process. There are few methods for neutralizing the malformed protein, including incinerating it at high temperature or dousing it with chemicals. Prions can exist in the environment for years without breaking down.

Sidestepping science?

Any recommendation to close a feedground today would likely find its way to the governor’s desk in any case, Sommers said. The bill creates a process for “all to be heard” before “the big dog decision-maker makes the call,” he said.

“I think it rises to the level of having a more thorough process,” Sommers said of elk feedground closures. “It just increases public participation” and provides “a clear decision-making tree.”

For Wilbert, the measure sidesteps science.

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“The Legislature doesn’t like the information they’re getting from the scientists and wildlife experts,” she said, “and they think they can do a better job. They’re politicizing an issue that shouldn’t be politicized.”

CWD has arrived in a feedground herd and urgent action is necessary, she said.

“I’m really disappointed in this approach,” she said. “We should leave wildlife management to wildlife management experts and it should be based on the best available science.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. .I just read in previous comments that “there is no species barrier” for prion diseases. The most prevalent prion disease in Wyoming currently is likely CWD, and the prion disease being discussed at the center of elk feed grounds. The origin of CWD in cervids has been traced back to ~1967 from CSU Extension Lab. Since that time, 10’s of thousands of people have eaten CWD positive deer (calculated using CWD test results and prevalence in hunting areas) and to date, no person has gotten this TSE disease from this exposure, nor has CWD been seen to transmit to other (non-cervid) animals that share common feed grounds (pronghorn, domestic cows…). This is what is commonly referred to as “a species barrier”. Whether a human (or wolf or mountain lion…) eats a CWD positive cervid and the abnormal prion passes through their digestive system back to the ground and vegetation (even passing through a sewage treatment plant) and then infects a cervid eating that CWD prion on the vegetation, does not really describe a prion breaking a “species barrier” as discussed in the article cited in previous comments. The statement that “human forms of neurodegenerative disease are transmissible” to cervids (namely Norway Reindeer) and through our sewage treatment plants, needs a bit more scientific backup other than “I guess”.
    Ya, CWD and TSE’s are really scary diseases. Let’s hope that science can come up with a way to deal with this mess that “science” created. All research that I have read indicates that there is in fact (to date), a species barrier between cervids with CWD and transmission to humans. Let’s not make it worse than it already is. If the transmission of CWD to a human has in fact been identified, I would like to know, please respond.

  2. CWD has the potential to impact much more than an elk herd. While I respect the knowledge and skill of the G&F biologists to apply science to their decision making, they will be biased to manage for wildlife only. Due to the nature of this issue it would seem that task force that included G&F personnel, the Governor’s Office and the State Veterinarian would insure that a broader spectrum of interests would be represented in a crucial management decision.
    As for Mr. Vanderhoff’s concern regarding the cost of livestock grazing, there have been extensive studies done on this issue. As an employee of the University of Wyoming I participated in one such study in the 1990’s to examine the equity of federal land grazing fees.. I am sure that the study report is still available through the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wyoming.

  3. What is the difference? The game dept hasn’t got enough brains to get rid of the wolves that are decimating the Elk herd so what is the difference if the disease gets the Elk? All these do-gooders want to do is make a name for themselves and prove to the people especially the hunters that they are in control. If they would care ,there would be hundreds of Elk in the Dubois area. Right now you go there in Oct. in the general season and you would be lucky to see an Elk where before the Wolves you would see hundreds. I and 77 years old and have hunted Wyo for over 30 years and it gets worse every year. When the Elk are gone and so are the out of state hunters then who is going to take the blame. Right now the out of state hunters are going to New Mexico or Utah to hunt. They are tired of hunting where there are no animals.

    1. Funny, how the wolf and the elk did just fine fine together, until the rapacious monkeys came along and destroyed the ecosystem, in honor of the livestock welfare queens and their loyal followers. It’s HUMAN activities that threaten wildlife.

    2. That is funny. there are tens of thousands of elk in Wyoming but somehow they “disappear” when you go hunting. Might get off your ATV and start walking to see elk off the roads. I certainly see them in every area.

    3. I’m not sure what you are taking about. Everyone i know of got their elk tag filled without much hassle this year.

      Everything I’ve read has said elk populations were on the increase this past year. You might have better luck if you didn’t hunt off the road..

      https://www.wyofile.com/elk-populations-booming-ahead-of-hunting-season/

      https://capcity.news/latest-news/2020/09/22/decade-of-the-elk-for-hunters-as-herds-top-goals-by-32/

      https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Hunting/Wyoming-Hunting-Forecast#elk

      https://trib.com/news/state-and-regional/elk-populations-above-objective-as-hunting-season-heats-up/article_87cdf59e-1a53-54e5-8988-f9bdec8f588d.html

  4. Hello, best regards to Mike Hunzie. I remember that we had these same discussions when you and I served together on the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, many years ago. Part of the dilemma then was the same as now, that Wyoming wildlife roams freely across most sectors and uses of Wyoming lands and properties, so any discussion needs to be inclusive. I think we disagreed back then, and probably still do, but with a friendship in between.

  5. The trend continues for one selfish reason or another depending on the angle the pressure is coming from. Folks study hard to gain employment in fields of their passion. Why even have a Game and Fish Department if you circumvent the recommendations of those we pay to make the best science based decisions in the management of our natural resources? Resources that benefit all of us in one way or another. Just maybe a little more opening of vast private properties to hunters would cure some depredation concerns. In a warped sort of way this is a good sign. Those in the private sector with selfish reasons must feel they don’t have enough control over Game and Fish to get their way so they’re doing an end run, elk herd be damned.

    1. Gregory, thank you for these wise thoughts! The state legislature has made it a point–almost every year–to eviscerate the Game & Fish Department. We need to stand our ground and quit letting this happen.

  6. It’s a moot point. The Director of the Game and Fish acts at the discretion of the Governor. This is just a “real” republican deflection to make it look like they’re doing something.

  7. Apparently it needs to be said (again); management by politics over science. Poli = many; tics = blood sucking parasites.

  8. Prion disease is a pathway disease that threatens humans, livestock and wildlife. There is no species barrier. Prion disease is soaring globally due to misinformation/disinformation and mismanagement. We are way behind the curve on opportunities to minimize deadly prion pathways that threaten all mammals. There is no defense against prion disease except science. It’s time for tough decisions locally and globally. The prion pandemic will never go away. https://crossbowcommunications.com/neurodegenerative-disease-public-health-disaster/

    1. ……All the more reason wild life management should be left to science based solutions rather than politics.

  9. Were it me, Albert Sommers, i would close the entirety of the Upper Green River Basin to cattle feeding ( grazing ). Or at least make you pay full market rates for the public’s grass water and pasture you use for pennies on the dollar .

    At least the Elk feedgrounds issue can be fully reckoned all the way through with sound science. I’m wondering how we can justify below cost environmentally suspect public lands grazing. Your Cow eats as much grass as three Elk and five Deer. Time to start paying for that largesse.