The Bridger-Teton National Forest will consider phasing out the Dell Creek and Forest Park winter elk feedgrounds as it studies Wyoming’s request to continue feeding 900 or more elk at the two sites.

The federal agency will accept comments until Feb. 14 on the scope of an environmental impact statement that will analyze the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s feeding request. The state seeks permits for 20 years or longer to operate the feedgrounds in Sublette and Lincoln Counties.

The national forest will weigh the state request to use 135 acres of federal property against “an alternative that phases-out feeding,” Forest Supervisor Patricia O’Connor said in a statement. The Bridger-Teton will consider two other alternatives: rejecting use of its property and allowing emergency feeding only.

The Forest Service launched the environmental review after federal judge Nancy Freudenthal last year considered fatal chronic wasting disease and other factors in a suit brought by conservationists. She found Wyoming had no permit to operate the feedground at Dell Creek and only a temporary one at Forest Park.

“The number of days elk would be fed would decrease over time.”

USDA notice in the Federal Register

“The continuation of feedground operations may increase elk mortality by increasing the prevalence of chronic wasting disease in the elk herds that use the feedgrounds,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture states in a notice in the Federal Register announcing the EIS. Under the phase-out alternative, “the number of days elk would be fed would decrease over time,” and hay sheds and corrals at the two feedgrounds would be removed within 20 years.

The Bridger-Teton will develop a final suite of options for the EIS after receiving scoping comments. The EIS process will include more chances for public comment but parties that might want to challenge a final decision must become involved now to preserve standing. A decision on the feedgrounds is to be finalized in 2024.

Although numbers vary over the years, the two feedgrounds in Bondurant and in the Greys River drainage host about 900 elk a winter, according to Game and Fish data.

Wyoming’s case

Dell Creek is one of 14 state-run feedgrounds on federal property that activists challenge, in part asserting unnaturally concentrating elk on feedgrounds exacerbates the spread of CWD. In its application for a long-term permit, Wyoming said it continues to look for non-federal sites for feeding near Dell Creek, according to documents WyoFile obtained through records requests.

“Other areas in the vicinity lack reasonable access during winter months due to deep snow conditions, and lack reasonable separation from livestock operations,” the application states. “Areas close to Highway 191 may result in increased traffic accidents and associated human safety concerns. The current location has been in operation for decades and has proven to be very effective at mitigating these concerns.”

Elk at the Wyoming Game and Fish Camp Creek Feedground. (Paul Cross/USGS)

There are numerous benefits to feeding elk during winter, according to the Federal Register notice. Feeding “increases over-winter elk survival by maintaining body condition,” and “reduces transmission of diseases [such as brucellosis] to livestock,” the notice reads.

Ending feeding “may reduce elk winter survival,” the USDA states, trimming elk numbers and “negatively impact[ing] hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities.” Wyoming’s goal is to reduce conflicts between elk and ranchers, including brucellosis transmission, the notice states.

Wyoming also seeks to maintain elk population objectives “pursuant to the interests of [its] constituents and without excessive winter elk mortality.”

A decision must agree with the Bridger-Teton’s management plan, which calls for the agency to provide habitat for state wildlife according to population objectives “agreed to by the Forest Service,” the notice states. The forest plan also calls for the Bridger-Teton to help reestablish elk migration routes that elk historically used to leave the Dell Creek and Forest Park areas to natural wintering grounds.

The Bridger-Teton plan also calls for the national forest to help increase “viewing and hunting opportunities for outfitters and clients.”

The Bridger-Teton EIS also will “address any gaps” between Bridger-Teton’s desired conditions and those that actually exist, the notice says. That means addressing brucellosis, CWD, habitat, hunting, wildlife viewing and the condition of fish, wildlife and land.

“Hearing from the public during the comment period is crucial to the planning effort,” Supervisor O’Connor said in her statement. Public comments will be essential to framing the proposed action and alternatives — the next step in the process.

Suit filed in 2017

The conservation groups Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and Gallatin Wildlife Association brought the 2017 suit that resulted in Freudenthal’s decision and initiated the EIS.

Game and Fish estimates there are 101,800 elk in the state’s 28 closely monitored herds, 28.6% above the objective for those groups. The wildlife agency estimates 8,400 elk populate seven additional herds that have no numerical objective, making Wyoming home to an estimated 110,200 elk.

Wyoming operates 22 elk feedgrounds, all west of the Continental Divide, that support 14,000-20,000 of the state’s wapiti. In addition, the National Elk Refuge in Teton County supports the bulk of the 11,000-strong Jackson Elk Herd under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s separate supplemental feeding program.

Fourteen of the state feedgrounds are on federal property. CWD has recently been found in two feedground-supported elk herds that together number about 13,000 animals.Game and Fish biologists estimate the agency would have to reduce the population of feedground elk by 60% to 80% without the feeding program, agency director Brian Nesvik has said. Game and Fish is assembling a stakeholders’ group to address the feedground dilemma.

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. Is this an official comment forum? I didn’t see where in the article to comment to the BT officials.

  2. We have all been witnessing for decades what has been happening to the elk’s winter rangeland and habitat. We see housing developments, ranchettes, trophy homes, etc, spreading like an invasive species in the valleys that have been historically critical habitat for elk. If we take away what they need to survive we owe them feed. Maybe we need more research on CWD.

    1. Colorado is virtually the same size as Wyoming, but it has ten times the human population. It also has nearly three times the elk population. Colorado doesn’t feed elk during winter. Winter feeding doesn’t occur in 20 of 23 Wyoming counties. The evidence is clear that Rocky Mountain elk do not need winter feeding to persist and even thrive.

  3. I can see both sides of the story. This program has been going on for decades, successfully. Is there over a period of time the elk can build a resistance to CWD?
    As far as the feed grounds, how would these individuals (that bring frivolous law suits) feel if their food supply was cut back in the middle of the winter without their say so? Most of these people live quite comfortably and don’t struggle to feed their families.
    At one point, I thought the State was using a cake/compressed food. Granted the elk would still be in close quarters, but if applied with the right machine to spread this feed out over a wider area would reduce the ‘nose to nose’ feeding to a point.
    During a drought phase like we are presently in, there wouldn’t be enough free grazing in some of these ‘historical’ winter areas unless it could be carefully monitored that it wouldn’t be grazed off by cattle. And the grazing permits have been the livelihood of so many families for generations that cutting them off would be detrimental to the family rancher/farmers.
    Definitely a Catch 22…

    1. As of the latest reports, CWD has no cure and is always fatal to infected animals. Therefore, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that letting animals build up an immunity is an option. CWD also stays in the soil for awhile when shed by infected animals. The real scary possibility is if CWD spreads to livestock or humans. The probability of such an occurrence is unknown, but CWD can infect monkeys: https://www.cdc.gov/prions/cwd/transmission.html

      Here is the link to Wy Game and Fish’s brief page on CWD, https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Wildlife-in-Wyoming/More-Wildlife/Wildlife-Disease/Chronic-Wasting-Disease

  4. It is time elk were allowed to follow natural migration routes as they did before States decided to interfere with nature. CWD is now being seen in southern States too thanks to the artificial clumping of herds in one winter feeding location. The ridiculous war on apex predators such as wolves and cougars also mean that infected, sick animals are not culled naturally. Instead they breed, infect more of the herd in whatever way CWD is spread (transmission is not understood yet) and these animals are then infecting other areas when they finally leave the feeding grounds. Without feeding grounds, wolves would also not have easy pickings and the populations of both species would self regulate.