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 Legislature on Monday passed a bill that strips the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission of the authority to close any of Wyoming’s 22 winter elk feedgrounds and gives that power to the governor.

The bill passed the Senate 28-1-1 after breezing through the House and a Senate committee. It now heads to the governor’s desk for final approval.

Sponsored by Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) the bill comes amid elevated worries about fatal incurable Chronic Wasting Disease infecting feedground elk and spreading more rapidly because of the artificial crowding on feedgrounds. Those worries, and the discovery of CWD in a feedground herd in 2020, have accelerated conservationists’ calls for closing feedgrounds.

But closing a feedground could also have negative effects, sending elk onto private lands in the winter, where they might mingle with cattle, consume their feed and spread the bovine disease brucellosis.

The bill would require the Game and Fish Department and Commission to submit any proposal to close a feedground to the Wyoming Livestock Board for review before it heads to the governor. Insertion of livestock interests into the wildlife equation is necessary, Sommers has said, because the feedgrounds affect both elk and ranchers.

Closing feedgrounds is “a multi-species decision,” Sommers said. Closing a feedground is “not just a Game and Fish issue,” he said when explaining the bill last month.

Wyoming feeds some 17,000 elk for several months every winter in Teton, Sublette and Lincoln counties, all west of the Continental Divide. The agency last fall began a yearslong process collecting public views, strategies and comments as they seek a resolution to the looming problem. 

If signed by Gov. Mark Gordon, the measure would further diminish the authority of the seven-member Game and Fish Commission, a civilian panel that oversees the wildlife agency. Those gubernatorially appointed commissioners shouldn’t have power to make the potentially significant decision to close feedgrounds, Rep. John Winter (R-Thermopolis) said.

Feedground-closure decisions “need to be made by an elected official,” he told the House Travel Recreation and Wildlife Committee on Feb. 23.

Another loss of Game and Fish authority

The bill comes at the expense of wildlife, the Wyoming Outdoor Council said when the measure was introduced. The group promised vigilance “to ensure that Game and Fish is not hindered from making science-based decisions in the best interest of Wyoming wildlife and communities.”

Conservationists are worried about what they say is historic and continuing erosion of the authority held by the Game and Fish Department and its overseeing commission. The two are tasked “to provide an adequate and flexible system for control, propagation, management, protection and regulation of all Wyoming wildlife,” their founding law states.

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, 2020. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr/WyoFile)

For Chris Madson, a former 30-year agency employee, that means the agency must advocate forcefully for wildlife. Game and Fish’s charter doesn’t say wildlife decisions should be made “consistent with economic development in the state or as long as such efforts do not interfere with industrial development or other economic interests,” he said in an interview.

The bill continues a pattern of politicians’ actions, he and others said. “Whenever they get an answer they don’t like,” Armond Acri, a lifetime hunter and angler said, “they reach over and try to change things.”

One turning point in the agency’s history came several decades ago, when lawmakers made the Game and Fish director an at-will employee whom the governor could fire at any time for no reason, several critics said.

“Good managers pick good people and give them directions and let them do their job,” Acri said. ”Poor managers micromanage their people. You want good people who will tell you you’re the emperor and you have no clothes.”

Subjecting the Game and Fish director to the governor’s will “took the voice away from the Game and Fish,” said Dwayne Meadows, executive director of the Wildlife Federation. Often when Wyoming politicians learn of a potential wildlife protective measure like designating a migration corridor or guarding an animal under the Endangered Species Act “they see it as a threat, especially to the oil and gas industry,” he said.

That became apparent when Game and Fish biologists were tracking, observing and mapping wildlife migrations. The agency designated several migration corridors before industry protested and Gov. Gordon stepped in to take over the process.

Once mapped and designated, the corridors are used by regulating agencies when deciding whether to restrict development or activity in sensitive wildlife areas. Designating a migration route, “it’s an observation,” Acri said. “You can’t argue with an observation.”

Madson said migration corridor designation is “their best technical analysis [that] this is an important route.”

If the department had authority to go into a corridor and say what could or could not be done – maybe at that time it’s time to have the big discussion about how far we’re going to go and who gets affected,” Madson said. 

But when it comes to forward their best technical analysis for wildlife “they were not allowed to even do that,” he said. “Is that an erosion? I think it is.”

Agency support?

Before it moved to the Senate floor, Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik presented Sommers’ bill to a Senate committee, saying he understood the ranchers’ interests.

Sommers’ measure “would formally provide the authority for the closure of a feedground with the governor,” Nesvik said. He challenged the notion that the bill would strip the agency of its authority.

“I don’t view it that way,” he said. “I would never propose to close a feedground without the governor being on board. I don’t view it as having our authority stripped away.”

Nesvik agreed artificially gathering elk can spread diseases faster. “The science doesn’t indicate that’s the best thing to do,” he said. But the herds have lost their historic learned migration patterns. Feedgrounds keep elk from cattle, reduce their consumption of ranchers’ hay, reduce competition with mule deer on winter ranges and help provide an ample surplus of wapiti for hunters, Nesvik said.

If feedgrounds were closed, department employees believe “we would have to reduce the population of elk [in the area] by 60[%] to 80%,” Nesvik said. “We certainly can’t have wildlife threatening cattle or threatening our tourism industry or threatening our opportunities to hunt,” Nesvik said.

In introducing the bill on the Senate floor, Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) said the measure would require Game and Fish to “to coordinate and consult” with the Wyoming Livestock Board before it submits a recommendation to close a feedground.

The bill has no consultation language regarding closure recommendations and puts the Livestock Board in a position to make the closing arguments before the issue hits the governor’s desk. Once it receives the Game and Fish recommendation, the Livestock Board “shall provide its opinion to the governor on whether the board believes the closure of the elk feedground is appropriate,” the bill reads.

Many of those speaking on the bill during House and Senate committee hearings addressed the specter of sudden feedground closure, not who should have authority over their closure.

Sommers and others have said the bill ensures a process is in place to listen to the worries of all parties when it comes to feedground management. Nesvik told lawmakers that even under today’s laws he would never close a feedground without going to the governor or engaging a spectrum of interests, including those of stockmen and women.

Game and Fish has begun a yearslong process to address CWD and elk feedgrounds and doesn’t need legislative intervention, a Wyoming Wildlife Federation representative told the Senate committee. Further, she said, the bill excludes rather than includes stakeholders by identifying only the Livestock Board and Game and Fish Department as key players.

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“This bill is only codifying two of those stakeholders,” Jessi Johnson, WWF’s government affairs director, said. Putting the closure decision on the governor’s desk shackles the process to the pendulum swings of changing administrations, she said.

Reps. Chad Banks (D-Rock Springs) and Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) opposed the bill on the House floor before it moved to the Senate on a 58-2 vote. Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) voted against the bill in the Senate.

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. “According to the 30-year Wyoming Game and Fish Department employee quoted in this article, agency decisions regarding wildlife need not give equal consideration to economic or social consequences.

    The mindset that wildlife outcomes are independent of people and their livelihoods is widespread among the various agencies tasked with managing public forests and wildlife. It is an important reason that the bureaucracies have allowed Yellowstone’s bison and elk to become the national reservoirs for brucellosis, and are now poised to make them mega-spreaders of CWD as well.

    A comprehensive program to eliminate these diseases from the bison and elk herds in Yellowstone and Teton Parks AND the public and private lands surrounding them is long overdue – and conspicuous by its absence. The blame for this properly rests with the federal and state agencies tasked to manage the vast public lands of the West and the wild animals that live on them.

    This must change. Entrenched bureaucracies accountable to no one have profoundly harmed public health, businesses of all sizes and types, education at all levels, as well as the national forests, public rangelands and wild animals that are the subject of this article.

    In this context, forcing agencies to respond to local interests is logical and this legislation is a small first step. Let us hope it is at long last followed by a coordinated effort that places science over dogma and internal agendas.

    And unless this coordinated effort is approached holistically – considering social and economic factors – the most well-intentioned efforts to save the herds will fail.

    For more on this and related topics visit http://www.pitchstonewaters.com

  2. Since when do private landowners get to dictate where wildlife feeds? Sheep and cattle are non-native species (like horses) and don’t belong here – and brought brucellosis with them, not wildlife transmitting it to domestic livestock. The pathogen was discovered in Malta in the 1850s – long way from any wildlife in the West.
    As for CWD, livestock can’t get it http://cwd-info.org/faq/#:~:text=Chronic%20Wasting%20Disease%20(CWD)%20is,of%20bodily%20functions%20and%20death.
    The Livestock Board is looking for ways to remain relevant – and push the idea that their paltry contributions to the state economy through agriculture are somehow saving us now that minerals are flat – and not coming back any time soon. And while $1.5 billion is nothing to sneeze at, it’s a whopping 2.1% of the state’s GDP.

    1. This is Wyoming, a place where people prefer myth to reality. Many here live in a glorified past–complete with a laughable “code of the west”–that never was and look up to livestock farmers as their rightful rulers. A surprising number believe the high plains welfare queens provide almost all the beef in the country and that their herds improve wildlife habitat. Your little boy guvner touts that nonsense as well.

  3. Wow, the livestock industry sure backhanded the Wyoming Game and Fish Department with this legislation. Perhaps WGFD will return the favor when the livestock industry comes hat in hand asking for wildlife damage compensation.

  4. Shocking that a bunch of ranchers are pushing forward legislature that benefits ranchers, and to transfer decision-making authority to a rancher. Are they going to rescind this if we ever get a Governor that isn’t a rancher?

    Sure would be nice if we had a legislature that was representative of the Wyoming populous (97%+ non-ranchers) instead of the inverse. These folks should need to realize that recreation is the second biggest industry in this State behind mineral extraction and should be prioritized instead of an antiquated industry that contributes less than 3% of the GDP.

  5. I see this bill as a symptom of a long festering problem–lack of good G&F communication with the outdoor public. Our wildlife managers are very good at biology, but generally pretty horrible at sociology. By design, they only involve the public in management decisions at the end of the process, usually after the important decisions are already made. Hence much of the outdoor public feel that input is a waste of time, since G&F will just do what they want anyway.

    The Department says they have an “open door policy” and are always listening to the public, yet there is no formal process for gathering public input. So what the pubic hears is that G&F has an open door to hear folks complain, but a closed mind to actually using that input to set long range management goals.

    A good example of this is the way the fish division of G&F holds regulation meetings. The meetings are held every 3 years in April and May. What most the public doesn’t know is that management recommendations for the new regulation cycle were already made and submitted for administration approval 3 months earlier back in January. In this way G&F allows the public to disagree with any new proposal, but has no intention of actually involving the public at the foundational level in developing proposals. The attitude is that since they are the experts, they will decide what type of outdoor experience you want. So the message is sent that G&F owns the resource, and the public should be grateful they are allowed to use it.

    Bills like this one (which are not a good idea) are just a symptom of the public being cut out of the early part of the management goal setting process. If the public felt “franchised” in wildlife management decisions, bills like this one would receive strong pushback. The fact that it didn’t is evidence the outdoor public doesn’t trust G&F or the G&F Commission to make a decision they support. The Department could begin to change this tomorrow if they really wanted to. But that would mean giving up some meaningful control, and that’s something both managers and politicians hate. If it doesn’t change, the public will continue to support additional forms of political wildlife management. Something not in the best long term interest of wildlife, or Wyoming’s citizens.

  6. Pore ol’ Wyoming. It’s people live in a past that never existed, so they have no concept of reality and do what they’re told to do by their “betters”, including livestock and sugar beet “industries” that contribute next to nothing to the national food supply.

  7. When it comes to paying for the feedgrounds (which serve to benefit livestock), its on the shoulders of the hunters and WGFD, but when it comes to closing them that’s when its a “multi species issue”.

    Wyoming ranchers love government regulations when it benefits them.

  8. Wyoming is now Baja Montana.
    Both states wildlife programs are actually run by antiquated Stockgrowers working from their 1886 operators manual , totally favoring imported alien exotic domestic even-toed ungulates over native species . Montana hates migrating Bison . Wyoming hates migrating Elk . Both hate Griz and Wolves .

    The shockwave came with the 28-1-1 Senate vote upholding this magnanimously stupid anachronistic legislation. I’m waiting for the other cowboy boot to drop …replacing the pure white Bison on the Wyoming state flag with a brown and white Hereford.

    1. I get the feeling that some ranchers would be good with no elk around and all feed available to livestock on public lands for sale at cut rate federal grazing fees. If many elk die of diseases spread on feed grounds, they may benefit.

      1. Recall the rancher in Meeteetse at the 100,000+ acre 91 Ranch who was tired of Elk helping themselves to his hay stackyard. He took a Chinese made assault rifle and killed 17 of them outright, and crippled some unknown number of others. Many – including me – feel he did not receive a punishment that fit the crime.

        The Elk that winter in the upper Greybull River valley migrate all the way from the Upper Yellowstone and Thorofare drainages

  9. Let me hear that again. We don’t want wildlife threatening our hunting interests? I’m afraid Director Nesvik has lost his way.

    A few weeks ago he proclaimed that active leasing of federal oil and gas facilitated wildlife management.

    What’s next? Road-building will be good for wildlife. Industrial development on Sage grouse leaks will enable better management because then the birds will congregate on the few remaining sites., making observation easier.. Willow losses will be good for moose.