Elk follow a hay wagon as feed is spread out at a Game and Fish feedground. (provided/Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department last week wrapped up a six-town tour aimed at launching stakeholder groups to generate “new ideas for management” of Wyoming’s 22 elk feedgrounds, where chronic wasting disease threatens some 14,000 elk.

Wildlife managers hope the meetings from Rock Springs to Jackson will encourage citizen stakeholders to volunteer for an 18-month effort that could lead to a new paradigm for managing the winter feedgrounds. In the face of fatal, incurable CWD, Game and Fish may not continue business as usual, officials said as they called for citizen participants.

“We need to look differently [at] things we have done in the past,” Brad Hovinga, Jackson regional wildlife supervisor, told residents in Jackson last week. That raises questions about the future of elk west of the Continental Divide, where feeders dole out hay, concentrating wildlife in a way that can accelerate disease spread.

The agency will impanel groups of stakeholders to undertake a “shared learning” experience, Hovinga said. Unlike some other citizen-engagement processes the state has undertaken, this one won’t be consensus-driven, requiring all stakeholders to agree on each point.

The department wants to consider “multiple perspectives” during the development of the plan, Scott Edberg, Game and Fish deputy chief of wildlife, said in a statement. Stakeholder perspectives and recommendations will be “put into the Game and Fish hands,” Tara Kuipers, a consultant from Cody who facilitated the meetings, told Jackson participants.

The Game and Fish Department would draft  a new feedground plan to be presented to the Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners for adoption. The agency would hold public hearings, officials said.

The goal is a plan that would address social, biological, political and economic problems and benefits of feeding, Game and Fish officials have stated.

“This is not a process to close feedgrounds,” Hovinga said. “It’s not a process to ensure that we always keep them open. But everything in between, everything’s on the table.”

100 years of feeding

Some conservationists believe Wyoming should act immediately to prevent CWD from spreading among elk, but closing feedgrounds would upset a system to which both wildlife, ranchers, hunters and the public have grown accustomed. Because of feedgrounds, elk no longer follow traditional migration patterns that took them from summer to winter ranges and back again.

Feedgrounds keep elk numbers up and the wildlife away from winter cattle feeding operations and highways. Closing feedgrounds would send hundreds of animals to private ranches and stock feedlines and could cause many elk to starve, critics of such ideas say.

There is no vaccine and no cure for CWD, a somewhat mysterious ailment that attacks the central nervous system causing an animal to slowly wither.

John Fandek guides his horse team while feeding about 1,000 elk at the Black Butte Feedground in the Upper Green River Basin on Feb. 28, 2021. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr/WyoFile)

As it wrestles with such issues, the Game and Fish Department expects to appoint members to stakeholder groups soon. The agency is hoping for 10-12 members in each group, representing everything from outfitters and guides, elected officials, academia and others, agency spokesman Mark Gocke in Jackson said.

The groups will meet together to start with, Gocke said. They will undertake “shared learning” by delving into topics already identified in the  first phase of the agency’s initiative. Those will include, among other things, the social and political pressure Game and Fish faces with respect to feedgrounds, what other states do and options for finding more winter range on federal and private property.

Each stakeholder group will eventually provide its suite of recommendations and feedback to the department. 

Agency employees will draft and recommend a plan to its governing board, the appointed civilian Game and Fish Commission. The goal is a long-term wildlife and feedground management paradigm that is durable and publicly supported, officials said.

The stakeholder process and resulting commission action is the second phase of the agency’s initiative and would be completed in the spring of 2023, officials said. The first phase collected ideas from around the state. The third would see the agency implementing any new plan.

Turnout at the six meetings in western Wyoming was mixed, with only a handful attending some presentations, scores at others, officials said. Attendees were asked to list their top concerns about feedgrounds and to describe their ideal outcome for the 14,000 elk and their winter haunts.

The complex bio-political problem involves diseases of both elk and cattle, the protection of ranchers and agricultural interests and the desire of hunters to have abundant, healthy quarry, according to some of the public comments. Elk also have constituents among tourists and nature lovers and among conservationists who value free-ranging wildlife that follow natural habits and processes.

Woven among those sometimes-competing interests in elk are political boundaries that bisect their habitat. Elk range across national parks, the National Elk Refuge, U.S. Forest Service lands and private property, each of which has its own set of priorities, laws and regulations and rights.

The 14,000 or so elk on state feedgrounds account for about 80% of elk in the surrounding areas, not counting the Jackson Elk Herd that centers its winters on the National Elk Refuge.

Game and Fish elk management does not extend to the refuge in Jackson administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The feedground plan would not directly affect operations there.

An average of 7,426 elk annually, or 64% of the Jackson Herd, receive supplemental feed at that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operation. The Jackson Elk Herd, which has a population goal of 11,000 animals, was the first feedground herd in which CWD was detected when a hunter’s kill in 2020 tested positive for the cousin of Mad Cow Disease.

Scrutiny of elk management could be keen. The Jackson Elk Herd is “the most iconic elk herd in the world,” participant John Watsabaugh said at the Game and Fish meeting in Jackson. 

Feedground closure law

A new law governing feedground closures will not affect the Phase II feedground initiative, Hovinga told the Jackson group. The law stripped the agency of its ability to close feedgrounds, transferring that authority to the governor. 

The law requires the agency to plan to replace any feedground on federal property that could be closed through litigation or other policy changes. The law requires Game and Fish to analyze any proposal to close a feedground and submit that analysis to the Wyoming Livestock Board for its review and comment before it is forwarded to the governor.

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The law only codifies “what we’ve been doing anyway,” Hovinga said. 

Given the history of feedgrounds in western Wyoming, change could come slowly.

After 100 years of feeding elk, “we’re not coming out of it overnight,” he said.

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. The only realistic answer to place the least affect on people and animals would be to find a cure for the CWD and supplement the cure in fed on the feed grounds. After using feeding grounds for such a long period of time the animals only know that pattern as they only live a short life span. So anything other than that will greatly affect the elk, people ,and cattle.

  2. Yes, all perspectives will be acceptable to this task force, except those that materially address the problem, that is, closing feedgrounds and making landowners responsible for protecting their own haystacks and feedlines.

    The sole purpose of this task force–like all previous G&F “public engagement” task forces–is to make it appear that G&F is doing something while at the same time blowing more smoke than the California fires have brought us this summer. In the end, it will be business as usual. Round up elk and feed ’em hay. What could be simpler? Problem solved.

    Sooner or later, however, CWD will hit the feedgrounds–if it hasn’t already. Maybe wolves are helping to forestall the inevitable epidemic by sussing out and killing elk that have the disease but haven’t yet shown symptoms that humans can see.. But wolves can’t do it all.

    Elk feedgrounds represent an almost criminal negligence of the public trust on the part of the State of Wyoming and the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. The public trust is a sovereign duty of states, enforceable by the courts, to protect vital public resources against harm caused by private interests–in this case private landowners.

    I have long thought–for over 20 years–that conservation interests should bypass the political process and sue Wyoming for abandoning its public trust duty by keeping feedgrounds going. The goal of such a lawsuit would be to force the closure of feedgrounds. I can think of no greater violation of the public trust than operating large scale feeding factories that produce a fatal wildlife disease for which there is no cure or vaccine. But most of the conservation groups have thrown their hands up and excused inaction by saying nothing can be done. It’s more important for them and their funding to go along to get along, to play politics.

    Be that as it may, by abandoning its duty, Wyoming has not only harmed a vital public resource, but it has also diminished its sovereignty as a state. It has become a private oligarchy masquerading as a republic.

    Some years ago, I published in the Jackson Hole News & Guide a speculative piece that laid out what would happen when CWD hits the National Elk Refuge. In short, I had US Army Rangers set up a ring of machine gun positions surrounding the herd as it munched pellets on the feedlines. Rangers slaughter all the elk; the Refuge is now just another killing ground. Afterwards, Army engineers bulldoze the dead elk into great piles and set them afire. Doesn’t do much good though as fire doesn’t destroy CWD prions. So now, the National Elk Refuge has been transformed into the “National Prion Refuge.” Has a ring to it, doesn’t it.

    Oh well. I suppose climate change will moot the whole thing.

  3. I Google searched ” CWD spreading mechanisms” and found the following statement which supports my previous comment about prions lying in the soil:

    Because CWD infectious agents can be found in feces, saliva, urine and decomposing carcasses and are extremely resistant to decomposition in the environment, transmission of CWD may occur INDIRECTLY VIA EXPOSURE TO A CONTAMINATED ENVIRONMENT AS WELL AS DIRECTLY FROM ANIMAL TO ANIMAL.

    This means there is or will be a massive problem with CWD prions lying in the soil/manure of the feedlots. Can you imagine the soil of the National Elk Refuge becoming contaminated – and urine could carry the prions down to the 1-6 foot level as it soaks into the soil. This is a MEGA, MEGA, MEGA problem which the elk feed ground discussion groups will need to address and there is no easy solution. Possibly dispersal of the concentrated herds will help minimize contamination in the feed grounds but that would create a whole new set of problems.

    I have wondered if all of the elk and/or deer come down with CWD or if there are some genetically different animals which seem to have an immunity. And then, what if the CWD prions mutate and we have a new strain much as coronavirus strains have developed. And a new strain may be deadly for cattle and humans.This is an extremely serious matter. And it lies in the soil!!

  4. VERY SERIOUS CONCERNS ABOUT CWD:

    I’m going to relate some disturbing information about CWD which I picked up about 20 years ago from the eastern side of Wyoming. One experiment really caught my attention – that being the re-introduction of clean elk into the original ranch feedlot in NE Colorado where CWD spread from. If my memory serves me correctly, the clean elk caught CWD several years after the original herd of elk was destroyed. I interpreted this to mean the prions layed in the soil/manure in the pen and could be activated years latter. If this is true, it implies that the infected deer in Thermopolis are leaving prions in there droppings in our yards and they could be re-activated at some unknown time in the future. Again, this could mean the elk feed grounds become infected in their soil/manure and can spread CWD via the habitat. There was a lot of confusion about the actual mechanism by which CWD is spread – and how it was transmitted to deer populations from elk populations. Does anyone have any current information on this matter – I haven’t kept up with the latest research findings. It could have a huge impact on the future of the elk feed grounds.

    The other really disturbing bit of information I learned was that the prions could NOT be killed by cooking meat at temperatures up to 400 degrees F. The English mad cow disease was caused by mixing slaughter by-products with grain and then feeding the mixture to cattle herds all over England. When the process was stopped, there were thousands of tons of contaminated feed left over – some of which was stored in old WW II aircraft hangers. In order to destroy the contaminated feed, it needed to be burned in extremely high temperature incinerators – possibly in the 2000 to 4000 degree F range, This is the same type of incinerator which is used to destroy nerve gas , biological weapons and chemical weapons.

    As Angus’s article points out, there are many different factors to consider as this problem moves forward; however, the scientific research information coupled with actual field experiences will be of paramount importance.