Citing worries about Chronic Wasting Disease, U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal overruled a Forest Service decision to let Wyoming use a federal site to continue feeding elk in Jackson Hole.
Freudenthal on Friday vacated a Forest Service special use permit that allows Wyoming Game and Fish Department to feed elk at Alkali Creek, just east of Kelly in the Gros Ventre River drainage. Among other things, the Forest Service didn’t follow legal procedure in deciding to allow the feeding to continue on federal property, Freudenthal wrote, and must now do so (see her memorandum decision and order below.)
The Forest Service failed to take a “hard look” at the issue and analyze a range of alternatives — such as phasing out elk feeding — as required, the judge wrote in a 28-page ruling. The Forest Service failed in its 2015 analysis to properly investigate the consequences of elk contracting and spreading the always-fatal CWD at the feedground, the judge wrote.
“There is no question that Alkali Creek Feedground could become a reservoir for CWD infection if it becomes established in elk populations in northwest Wyoming,” Freudenthal wrote. “That potential is increased with the concentration of elk at feedgrounds.
“If infected animals congregate, the environment will eventually be contaminated,” the judge’s memorandum decision and order states. “This will significantly affect vegetation and soils, thus productivity, over a very long term (if not indefinitely) and may result in an irreversible and irretrievable loss of wildlife and habitat.”
Her order puts the issue back in the Forest Service’s hands. The agency must now reassess Wyoming Game and Fish’s request to use the federal property. Two other state elk feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre River drainage — Patrol Cabin and Fish Creek — are not affected by the decision because one is not on federal property and the permit for the other was not up for consideration.The National Elk Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also not covered by the ruling.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesman Renny MacKay said his agency will need to attain a one-year Forest Service permit to conduct feeding operations. “We prefer the predictability of a longer-term authorization,” he wrote in an email. “This is not the first time we have had to deal with these annual permits and we are prepared to use that approach.”
A coalition of conservation groups — Western Watersheds Project, Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and Gallatin Wildlife Association — filed the suit against the Forest Service. Wyoming joined the case on the Forest Service side.
Elk feedgrounds called a “powderkeg” for CWD
Conservation groups have called Wyoming Game and Fish’s feedgrounds “powderkegs” where CWD could run rampant through artificially concentrated elk populations. CWD is an incurable ungulate malady that’s a cousin to Mad Cow Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans. There is no known vaccine or treatment. CWD is advancing westward across Wyoming but has not yet been detected on state feedgrounds or the National Elk Refuge near Jackson.
Western Watersheds’ staffer Jonathan Ratner said Wyoming Game and Fish is threatening elk populations in two ways — by concentrating elk on more than 20 feedgrounds and by targeting predators like wolves and grizzly bears. The two best actions the state could take is “closing down the feedlots and restoring native predators,” he said.
Wyoming feeds elk in the winter on more than 20 feedgrounds west of the Continental Divide to keep elk off private ranches and highways and to promote the species’ survival, among other reasons.
Lloyd Dorsey, of Sierra Club’s Wyoming Chapter called the ruling “a big step in the right direction that is long overdue.” He added; “It’s time to recognize the true threat these feedgrounds pose to elk throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecoregion.”
In her ruling, Freudenthal wrote that “artificial feeding increases the risk of disease transmission, increases the risk that the site will be contaminated … for a very long time.” She also wrote that approval of the feedground permit appeared to be contrary to the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s own aim as stated in its Forest Plan.
“[T]he BTNF Land and Resource Management Plan … includes a stated goal to ‘[h]elp re-establish historic elk migration routes,’” Freudenthal wrote, but artificial feedgrounds work against that aspiration.
MacKay said the state will continue to look for ways to reduce reliance on supplemental feeding in the long term. “However in the short term we need to continue to feed to manage this herd,” his email read. “Implications if we don’t feed is that those elk will move to other feedgrounds and exceed capacity as well as potentially commingling with cattle or doing other damage to private property.”
Ratner said Western Watersheds is discussing what to do should the Forest Service issue a temporary permit to operate the feedground this winter. Last winter, due to wolves chasing them to the National Elk Refuge, Game and Fish fed only 86 elk in the Gros Ventre Drainage. It used to see 3,500 in the area.