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America's National Elk Refuge: A ‘Miasmic Zone Of Life-Threatening Diseases'

As Chronic Wasting Disease Looms Over Greater Yellowstone, The Epicenter Of A Deadly Outbreak Could Be Western Wyoming. Part 2 of Mountain Journal's in-depth look at a coming wildlife plague.

A bull elk on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A bull elk on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
PART TWO

To nature-adoring onlookers, the sea of elk gathered every winter on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming appears to be an enchanting vision of wapiti nirvana.

Across generations, countless people have taken refuge sleigh rides, watching thousands of pastured wild elk being fed dry hay and alfalfa pellets. Indeed, the town of Jackson, Wyoming’s four rustic elk antler archways in its central public square are built from antlers shed by bull elk on the refuge.

Many readers here might reasonably wonder what could possibly be wrong with this  tranquil picture? (see below). How could anyone question the magnanimous gestures of local folk and U.S. taxpayers offering these majestic creatures nutritional charity to get them through the snow season?

After all, many Americans put out corn and other grains for deer in winter on the sly, defying state laws against feeding yet believing they, too, are doing the animals a favor. In an age of Chronic Wasting Disease, looks can be perilously deceiving, scientists say.

As CWD rapidly expands its geographical reach in North America, those seemingly benign practices of feeding, experts warn, could be hastening disastrous consequences. And now, with the deadly pathogen already looming on the edges of Greater Yellowstone, the most iconic wildland ecosystem in the Lower 48, what does CWD's arrival portend for the region's unparalleled wildlife populations?  Many epidemiologists see the National Elk Refuge as the place where an unstoppable pandemic would likely begin. 

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Old-timers in Jackson Hole get emotional, even misty-eyed, when discussing why the sight of so many elk is part of their culture and sense of place. They see the feeding of elk in heroic terms, the result of ancestors stepping forward and rescuing a national animal treasure, similar to what happened when Theodore Roosevelt, William Hornaday and others emerged as saviors against the total annihilation of bison.

Artificial feeding at the Elk Refuge was initiated more than a century ago. Lying adjacent to the town of Jackson's northern boundary and situated between Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the refuge, the second of its kind for a large mammal in history, was itself born of a crisis.

Thousands of elk in winters leading up to 1912, when the first pieces of today's 25,000-acre Elk Refuge were officially put in place, starved to death on the flats north of town, causing a public outcry that stretched all the way to Washington D.C. In response, a campaign to acquire land accompanied by feeding cemented a perception that unless wapiti were given supplemental forage in Jackson Hole they would die in droves or disappear altogether.

All is not nearly as idyllic as it appears in this scene with tourists enjoying a sleigh ride across the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Scientists say the unnatural feeding of thousands of wintering wapiti has created ripe conditions for a catastrophic outbreak of deadly Chronic Wasting Disease.  Photo courtesy National Elk Refuge
All is not nearly as idyllic as it appears in this scene with tourists enjoying a sleigh ride across the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Scientists say the unnatural feeding of thousands of wintering wapiti has created ripe conditions for a catastrophic outbreak of deadly Chronic Wasting Disease. Photo courtesy National Elk Refuge
There is even an apocryphal tale about the die-off years, that a human could have walked on the backs of dead elk in the snow for more than a dozen miles and never had one’s feet touch the ground.

The justification for feeding is based on the following rationale: because so much elk winter range in Jackson Hole has been covered by human development and because private ranches do not welcome elk, regarding them as unwanted competitors for grass consumed by cattle, the offering of alfalfa chow lines beyond what nature provides is essential. 

Keeping wild elk reliant and semi-tamed on unnatural forage in fenceless feedlot conditions draws many—but not all of them—away from private property. This same rationale applies to 22 other state-run feedlots dotting the federal Bridger-Teton Forest, tracts administered by the Bureau of Land Management and state lands scattered across western Wyoming.

What the controversial feeding program stands in contradiction to, however, is the conclusion of virtually every major professional wildlife management organization which warns that bunching up animals fosters conditions that are ripe for deadly disease outbreaks.

Wyoming’s rationale for feeding stands in contrast to other valleys across the West, including Greater Yellowstone’s Madison Valley in Montana, where wild elk persist in abundance and are not given boosts of alfalfa pellets to keep them alive.

As of fall 2017, a CWD positive animal has not been detected on the Elk Refuge nor on any of Wyoming’s widely ridiculed complex of feedgrounds, but CWD positive deer have been found nearby (see map below), and the clock is ticking.

At the Elk Refuge, another ecological consequence of feeding elk is wapiti no longer migrate out of Jackson Hole to lower elevations in winter as they did for thousands of years. Artificial winter feeding has suppressed that ancient instinct among many of the elk in western Wyoming; and yet, ironically, Wyoming celebrates elk migrations and makes them an object of scientific study and conservation priority through the Wyoming Migration Initiative

It turns out that there are many aspects of how Wyoming manages wild elk— including the state’s hostile attitude toward predators, which some experts consider an important line of defense in slowing CWD’s spread— that are fraught with contradiction and hypocrisy, critics say. One of the herds, the Jackson Herd that winters on the Elk Refuge, has also been extolled as “America’s Elk Herd” and is the most famous for the species in the world.

The abundance of public elk in Jackson Hole has represented meal tickets for generations of commercial hunting outfitters and guides and provided sustenance for local citizens putting wild meat in their freezers. Why change something that has worked well for them?

Elk start arriving on the National Elk Refuge and the state’s unfenced feedlots in droves in November, pushed out of the mountains by deepening snows. Remaining until April, they disperse again to distant summer calving and autumn breeding grounds in the high country following green up. Many different herds from Wyoming converge upon the remote meadowlands in Yellowstone National Park located in the geographic heart of the ecosystem and mix with other elk herds migrating in from Idaho and Montana.

Map of Greater Yellowstone elk migrations created by the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Note how the Jackson Elk Herd shares summer range with other herds in Yellowstone National Park which, in turn, come in contact with other herds fanning out across the northern, western and eastern tiers of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  This is one way scientists say CWD might quickly spread.
Map of Greater Yellowstone elk migrations created by the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Note how the Jackson Elk Herd shares summer range with other herds in Yellowstone National Park which, in turn, come in contact with other herds fanning out across the northern, western and eastern tiers of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This is one way scientists say CWD might quickly spread.
This massive consolidation of wintering elk in and around Jackson Hole and then the animals' subsequent summer intermixing has been likened by ecologists to the circulatory and pulmonary systems in a human body. Like breathing in and breathing out; like blood moving through veins and arteries. It occurs nowhere else in the Lower 48 on the scale as it still does in Greater Yellowstone with large mammals. And, like an infection that may start modestly as merely a cut to an outer appendage, CWD has the potential to bring virulence to herds far away from the Elk Refuge and feedgrounds.  

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As a result of unnatural feeding, elk numbers on the refuge and Wyoming feedgrounds have swelled far beyond their normal carrying capacity because normal winter mortality is lessened and because natural predators, namely wolves, had been eradicated.  Wolves were restored to Greater Yellowstone in 1995 and there remains resentment toward lobos from outfitters who say any elk a lobo takes is one less for clients to possibly shoot.

A major concern expressed by ecologists, and a topic of fierce debate, is that by keeping elk on a nutritional dole and by eliminating predators that often target the sick and weak, it has actually eroded the hardiness of animals by allowing the frail and vulnerable to better persist; in other words, leaving herds even more susceptible to disease.

Declarations that wolves have had a devastating impact on elk in Wyoming are contradicted by three salient data points: first, by surveys from Wyoming Game and Fish that show most hunting units are at or above elk population objectives; second, by Elk Refuge managers who say the winter herd needs to be reduced by thousands of animals in order to prevent damage caused by overgrazing, and third, ironically, by outfitters who, on their own websites, boast of tremendous hunter success in selling guided hunts for thousands of dollars apiece, often to out of state clients.

An interesting footnote, which will be explored in depth later, is that some ranchers in Montana welcome wolves as allies on their property to scatter large numbers of wild elk converging on their pastures.  In Wyoming, wolves are officially treated as vermin in over 85 percent of the state, with no more regard given to them than coyotes and rats, allowed to be killed for any reason, any time of day, even when they represent no conflict.

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Lloyd Dorsey, conservation director for the state chapter of the Sierra Club, passes by the Elk Refuge regularly. In fact, when I spoke to him recently, he was on his way to hunt big game in the Gros Ventre Mountains, passing by both the Elk Refuge and a state-run feedground on the Bridger-Teton National Forest called Alkali Creek. “I enjoy the challenge of fair chase. I like to eat wild game, and I look forward every fall to getting out there in the mountains,” he says.

The National Elk Refuge is considered one of the flagships of America's national wildlife refuge system. Dorsey says the founding of the Elk Refuge was based, in part, on a creation myth, “a semi-fairy tale” about a rationale for feeding animals that doesn’t hold up when subjected to scrutiny and well-established scientific truths.

Feeding elk made perfect sense at the dawn of the 20th century when no one knew what the ramifications were for disease and ecology. “I maintain the Elk Refuge was started, and state-run feedgrounds subsequently added during a time when our frontier society was far less enlightened in dealing with conflicts between wildlife, settlements, ranches and farms,” he explains.

“One of the prevailing frontier-mentality options was killing off wildlife that was regarded as a competitor or threat to livestock; another was putting wildlife figuratively into boxes and, in this case, feeding elk like you would cattle in a pasture, semi-domesticating them. I get why it was done. Feeding elk in the early 20th century made sense because it mitigated conflicts and kept more elk alive to hunt, eat, and make money from.”

Originally, elk were nourished with supplemental feed at the beginning of the 20th century with the noble intent of saving herds from starvation.  More than a 100 years later,  scientists say such practices of bunching up animals creates ripe conditions for outbreaks of disease like brucellosis, deadly Chronic Wasting Disease and bovine tuberculosis
Originally, elk were nourished with supplemental feed at the beginning of the 20th century with the noble intent of saving herds from starvation. More than a 100 years later, scientists say such practices of bunching up animals creates ripe conditions for outbreaks of disease like brucellosis, deadly Chronic Wasting Disease and bovine tuberculosis
But Dorsey and many others say it should have been a short term solution, phased out when the science became clear decades ago. Recently, an official with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department admitted as much in a meeting with conservationists from Montana.

Still, due to political resistance, feeding has continued. Some rural Wyomingites today insist their “way of life” and financial livelihoods depends on state and federal governments spending millions annually to feed elk.

“In modern times, other states have figured how to co-exist with wild deer and elk on natural habitat, but, ironically, not three large public land counties in western Wyoming—[Teton, Sublette, and Lincoln].  Not yet, anyway,” Dorsey said, noting that one of the real lingering justifications for feeding is to placate livestock producers, many of whom also graze their cattle on public lands at rates far below fair market value. Those same ranchers, while wanting their livestock to enjoy public grass, don’t want to share their pastures with public wildlife.”

“Intolerance toward free-ranging elk became official policy, and still is,” Dorsey notes. He and others say there is still plenty of natural habitat on public land to sustain elk in western Wyoming without artificial feeding.

Big game hunters, especially Wyoming outfitters and guides who profit by giving clients higher hunter success achieved through inflated numbers of animals to harvest, have vigorously defended feeding at the same time denying that CWD is a serious issue. 

Some vocal pro-feeding activists in Jackson Hole, like those arrayed around a group called Concerned Citizens for the Elk, have asserted, using Manichean logic, that it is better to keep feeding elk to prevent them from dying than stop feeding elk even though feeding leaves them highly vulnerable to catching a deadly non-eradicable disease. A local Jackson Hole veterinarian has even accused the Elk Refuge of deliberately starving elk whenever federal managers have made an attempt to reduce the amount of artificial feeding.

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Harold Turner is patriarch of a family that sells outfitting services and guided hunts on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The Turner operation is based out of the Triangle X Guest Ranch in Grand Teton National Park, a tourist concession operation owned by the federal government.  The Turner family sold the ranch to the federal government more than half a century ago, though it is a common misperception among Jackson Hole residents that the Turners still hold the deed.

Screenshot of Jackson Hole outfitter and guide Harold Turner giving interview to filmmaker Danny Schmidt in his documentary Feeding The Problem. Mr. Turner vigorously opposes shutting down artificial feeding of elk.
Screenshot of Jackson Hole outfitter and guide Harold Turner giving interview to filmmaker Danny Schmidt in his documentary Feeding The Problem. Mr. Turner vigorously opposes shutting down artificial feeding of elk.
Mr. Turner has long opposed cessation of feeding elk. “If the elk feeding grounds were shut down, we would not only lose our base, our economic base, but we will lose our heritage,” he claimed on camera in filmmaker Danny Schmidt’s acclaimed documentary Feeding the Problem that examines the feedground dilemma.

Wyoming’s ongoing motivation for doing all it can to halt the proposed elimination of feedgrounds is no mystery. Elk and deer hunting generates tens of millions of dollars for the economy of gateway communities in Greater Yellowstone. 

By the numbers, the amount of money generated annually by selling guided elk hunts in Greater Yellowstone is a small fraction within the overall pie of income generated through non-consumptive nature tourism in northwest Wyoming. Meanwhile, the number of big game hunters continues to dramatically decline nationwide in America, exacerbating the sense of desperation among outfitters and guides that their tradition is fading away with changing times. And it does not bode well for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that gets operating revenue from the sale of hunting licenses.

One hunting outfitter and guide in Jackson Hole, without offering any scientific data to substantiate his contention, claimed CWD is merely a “bogeyman” disease. That same individual has also claimed that wolves would devastate wildlife, an assertion proved by facts to be false.

Concerned Citizens for the Elk has taken out full-page ads in the Jackson Hole News & Guide trying to call into question the science of infectious disease.

Harold Turner suggested on film that the most prudent strategy for dealing with CWD is to wait until it arrives rather than taking preventative action such as closing down the feedgrounds. Fellow rancher and hunting outfitter/guide Glenn Taylor, also interviewed for Schmidt’s documentary, chose to deny the science of wildlife epidemiology.

“I’ve been asked about Chronic Wasting Disease before and I don’t think it’s as serious as they try to make you think,” Taylor told Schmidt. “Maybe today there’s too much scientific demand [reliance on science]. Maybe we need to manage from the seat of our pants is a good term, I think. Let the animals kind of do their thing. We may be better off than trying to initiate or use too much science to manage maybe what science shouldn’t be doing that.”
“Maybe today there’s too much scientific demand [reliance on science]. Maybe we need to manage from the seat of our pants is a good term, I think." Jackson Hole rancher, hunting outfitter and guide Glenn Taylor, saying science shouldn't be the prevailing factor in determining how to manage elk. 
In fact, Wyoming and the Elk Refuge stand accused by scientific experts as managing wildlife by the seat of its pants and critics assert that if wildlife were left to do its own thing, as Taylor suggests, feedgrounds would be shut down for the good of the public herds.

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To willfully ignore 21st century, peer-reviewed research, conservationists like Dorsey note, is to embrace ignorance, the kind of thinking that prevailed during the era of bloodletting in the Dark Ages.

CWD is not the only example of science—which does not comport with politics, culture and the agenda of special interests—being rejected in Wyoming. From members of Congress to state legislators and the governor on down to local school boards and chambers of commerce, many of Wyoming’s elected officials also deny human-caused climate change is real and that carbon emissions being sent into the atmosphere by the burning of Wyoming coal is a problem.

They deny the clear body of evidence showing that domestic sheep spread deadly diseases to wild mountain sheep (bighorns); they deny data showing both the ecological and economic value of predators (wolves, grizzlies and other species, even bobcats) in the ecosystem; they deny data showing the severe impacts of energy industry disturbance on sage-grouse habitat; and they deny the profound role that conserving federal public lands, by keeping them in an undeveloped condition, plays as a  positive sustainable engine of prosperity and enhanced quality of human life.

In his book, Pushed Off The Mountain, Sold Down The River: Wyoming’s Search For Its Soul, writer Samuel Western takes note of a prevailing cultural belief among Wyoming citizens. They are convinced that Wyoming exists as an exception to laws of nature which apply to every other place in the world. That mentality is known as “the Wyoming way” and it holds the conviction that by denying truth, one can alter reality.

Except, as Dorsey notes, it doesn’t.  It certainly doesn’t apply to Wyoming’s defiance of prevailing scientific conclusions related to feedgrounds and CWD. Glenn Hockett, a lifelong sportsman and volunteer leader of the Gallatin Wildlife Association in southwest Montana, claims that Wyoming’s incalcitrant stand toward feeding threatens not only the health of wild ungulates in Greater Yellowstone but all of the northern Rockies.

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On January 20, 2017, Eric Cole, a longtime Elk Refuge senior biologist, delivered a corroborating shot across the bow. Cole circulated information via email to wildlife colleagues and interested citizens that left many shocked. Cole’s informal report stated that CWD “infection in the Jackson elk herd is inevitable and possible at any time.”

Verbatim, his written assessment: “Population modeling predicts a wide range of CWD prevalence and effects on Jackson elk herd population growth rates in the short term (within 5 years) following introduction of the disease, but in the long term the effects of CWD on the health of the Jackson elk herd and recreational opportunities dependent on the Jackson elk herd will likely be significant and negative. For example at any level of CWD prevalence, current levels of cow elk harvest could not be sustained.  The current supplemental feeding regime will exacerbate the effects of CWD on the Jackson Elk Herd because elk density at NER far exceeds elk density reported at Rocky Mountain National Park, which was the source of the annual infection rate used in the model. 

“Elk are fed on the same 5,000 acres of [the National Elk Refuge] each year, and given the persistence of CWD prions in the environment, these areas will likely become heavily contaminated with the CWD prion over time if status quo management continues. 60-80% of the Jackson elk herd use NER feedgrounds each winter, which will regularly expose these elk to CWD prions at these sites.  Various elk migration studies and research on another disease prevalent on [the National Elk Refuge], (brucellosis), suggest that the current feeding regime and its associated high concentrations of elk could be a source of CWD infection for cervids throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”

Cole’s blunt acknowledgment, contradicting Wyoming’s sanguine stance, repeated warnings made by a number of his predecessors who spent careers in Fish and Wildlife Service uniforms.

Former Elk Refuge chief managers Mike Hedrick and Barry Reiswig noted as far back as the 1990s that CWD’s arrival in Greater Yellowstone was certain and that its spread would be exacerbated by the feeding of elk. 

Reiswig was roundly attacked by Wyoming outfitters, guides and politicians as being alarmist. His opinion, however, was backed up by veterinarian Thomas Roffe who presided over wildlife health issues for every national wildlife refuge in the country. It was highlighted, too, in an acclaimed book by Cole’s predecessor, former senior Elk Refuge biologist Bruce Smith, titled “Where Elk Roam: Conservation and Biopolitics of Our National Elk Herd.

“I know the national and regional offices of the Fish and Wildlife Service were well aware of the concerns because in the 1990s I helped Mike Hedrick draft a letter informing them,” Smith told me.

A 30-year top-level official with the Fish and Wildlife Service, now retired and who asked not to be identified, added this, “I recall briefings by Roffe when we met as Regional Refuge Chiefs. Also a meeting in Jackson Hole at the Elk Refuge where we heard about the feeding program-seems like a bad idea that should have been stopped long ago.  But, long-standing feeding programs like these can be incredibly difficult to dislodge,” he said. “I’ve wondered about the impact on hunting in the region but the ecological impacts are even more concerning.” 

Trepidation about disease and ecological impacts of having too many elk were brought to the attention of Jackson Hole’s own John Turner, who served as national director of the Fish and Wildlife Service and is the brother of Harold Turner and who grew up on the Triangle X Ranch. “John Turner knew. He knows today [of the dangers of feeding elk] but he’s never spoken up,” Smith said.

Both Roffe and Smith live today in Montana while Reiswig is a retired civil servant and backcountry horseman in Cody, Wyoming. All three, in varying ways, took their own agency to task, saying the Elk Refuge was wintering far too many wapiti, not only setting the stage for disease outbreaks but causing ecological damage that was negatively affecting habitat for other species because of elk overgrazing and over browsing vegetation.

Dr. Thomas Roffe, left, is the former national chief of wildlife health for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and  Bruce Smith, right,  spent more than half of his career as a senior researcher and wildlife biologist at the National Elk Refuge. Both Roffe and Smith warn that CWD and feeding elk have all the makings of zoonotic disaster. Photos courtesy "Feeding the Problem"
Dr. Thomas Roffe, left, is the former national chief of wildlife health for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bruce Smith, right, spent more than half of his career as a senior researcher and wildlife biologist at the National Elk Refuge. Both Roffe and Smith warn that CWD and feeding elk have all the makings of zoonotic disaster. Photos courtesy "Feeding the Problem"
As Reiswig once told me, there is profound irony:  if ranchers’ domestic cows were causing the same kind of negative ecological impacts on their public land allotments as elk on the National Elk Refuge were, ranchers would be reprimanded and possibly lose their grazing permits.

John Turner did nothing to press his agency, at least publicly, to reduce feeding.  He was Fish and Wildlife Service director under President George H. W. Bush.  Later, he served as the assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs for President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. Intriguingly, during the latter tenure, some of Turner's areas of involvement on behalf of the U.S. government were dealing with science, climate change, biodiversity and infectious diseases, including zoonotic threats, i.e. diseases shared between humans and animals.

After leaving civil service, Turner became a trustee for Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the U.S., which has been part of efforts to cast doubt on the science of climate change. He also was a board member of Ashland Energy, a global chemical and oil and gas conglomerate, leaving some to question his conservation values and espoused belief in wildlife management being driven by science, a fundamental pilar of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

It is described by The Wildlife Society this way: "The North American Model recognizes science as a basis for informed management and decision-making processes. This tenet draws from the writings of Aldo Leopold who in the 1930s called for a wildlife conservation movement facilitated by trained wildlife biologists that made decisions based on facts, professional experience, and commitment to shared underlying principles, rather than strictly interests of hunting, stocking, or culling of predators. Science in wildlife policy includes studies of population dynamics, behavior, habitat adaptive management, and national surveys of hunting and fishing."

Smith said there is no federal law that orders the Fish and Wildlife Service to feed elk at the Elk Refuge. Efforts to curtail feeding could be initiated by the agency’s national and regional directors or by the Interior Secretary who presently is Ryan Zinke, a Montanan, who insists he is devoted to wildlife conservation.

Ostensibly, no Fish and Wildlife Service director in history had a more intimate grasp of the issue than John Turner. In his defense related to his failure to intervene, which he could have pushed to do, no action was taken during a succession of Fish and Wildlife Service directors serving both Republican and Democrat presidential administrations.

Bruce Smith says he gave Turner’s successor, Jamie Rappaport Clark, today president of the national conservation group Defenders of Wildlife and an appointee of Bill Clinton, a tour of the Elk Refuge when she was Fish and Wildlife director in the 1990s and she understood the wildlife health issues in play. “She went back to Washington with a small elk antler that she found during her visit and I hoped it would be a reminder,” Smith said.

Clark told me in an interview a few years later that she tried to bring reforms. The refrain has always been that as long as Wyoming is opposed, the ending of feeding will never happen. Even a stinging rebuke in court to the Fish and Wildlife Service, a lawsuit brought by Defenders and other conservation groups, and supported by Clark against her former federal employer, has not broken the inertia.

In 2008, the environmental law firm EarthJustice and its lead attorney Tim Preso sued the Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of Defenders, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Wyoming Outdoor Council and the National Wildlife Refuge Association over management plans for elk and bison on the refuge.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, instead of heeding the expert opinions of its own senior staff, opted instead to essentially maintain the status quo. The plaintiffs charged that the Fish and Wildlife Service, in an environmental impact statement addressing the consequences of feeding, failed to both adhere to federal law or try to mitigate the jeopardy it was causing to wildlife under its care.

During those proceedings the groups highlighted irrefutable damning evidence pointing to a real and imminent threat to elk and the fact that the Fish and Wildlife Service was managing the refuge in violation of two laws. Even though staff made the dangers clear, senior agency administrators overruled them.  “In its final decision… the Service reversed itself, elevating the political preferences of Wyoming over the biological needs of the Refuge and its wildlife populations. In so doing, the Service acted arbitrarily and unlawfully,” Earthjustice wrote. 
"The whole point of a National Elk Refuge is to provide a sanctuary in which populations of healthy, reproducing elk can be sustained. The Refuge can hardly provide such a sanctuary if, every winter, elk and bison are drawn by the siren song of human-provided food to what becomes, through the act of gathering, a miasmic zone of life-threatening diseases.” —opinion of DC Circuit Court in noting how the Fish and Wildlife Service violates its own laws
The DC Circuit Court delivered this stinging assessment of facts to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in President Barack Obama’s cabinet: “The whole point of a National Elk Refuge is to provide a sanctuary in which populations of healthy, reproducing elk can be sustained. See 16 U.S.C. § 673a (creating a “refuge” for the elk). The Refuge can hardly provide such a sanctuary if, every winter, elk and bison are drawn by the siren song of human-provided food to what becomes, through the act of gathering, a miasmic zone of life-threatening diseases.”

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Lloyd Dorsey works during the day as a professional conservationist. During his time off, he loves to hunt. 

Dorsey is a headstrong individual and arguably no professional non-governmental conservationist has been more focused on CWD in the ecosystem than him. Prior to working for the Sierra Club, he was on the staff of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an organization that has been virtually—and oddly— silent on CWD since Dorsey’s departure. Mike Clark, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition's former executive director, said he admires Dorsey and gave him latitude to tackle CWD because wildlife diseases rank among the paramount issues threatening the ecological integrity of Greater Yellowstone, he said.  Dorsey left the Greater Yellowstone Coalition after Clark retired.

Conservationist Lloyd Dorsey, interviewed in Danny Schmidt's Feeding the Problem
Conservationist Lloyd Dorsey, interviewed in Danny Schmidt's Feeding the Problem
“Lloyd has been doggedly persistent. He can be a burr in the side of people who would rather just look the other way. He won’t quit because he knows there’s just too much at stake and it’s one of those situations where the more you know, the more that you can’t let it go,” Clark explains. “In Greater Yellowstone we’ve got one of the largest concentrations of  migratory wildlife left in the world. When you have a state like Wyoming knowingly destroying a public resource in order to provide commercial gain for a relatively few number of people, that’s a travesty.”  [Editor’s note: Clark, also a former journalist, serves on the board of Mountain Journal].

CWD was first detected in Wyoming mule deer in 1985 and it was confirmed in elk a year later.  Using data compiled by Wyoming Game and Fish, maps created by the Sierra Club and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates have tracked the steady progression of CWD. The maps show a growth in the number of CWD endemic zones and an advance of disease-positive deer, which are the flag species.

CWD was first diagnosed in southeastern Wyoming (marked in yellow) and over the last three decades has expanded in deer herds.  The disease is now bearing down on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the northwest corner of the state and  pressing up against the states of both Montana and Idaho.  The location of Wyoming's 22 elk feedgrounds are marked by red triangles.  The National Elk Refuge is located just south of Yellowstone National Park and east of Grand Teton National Park. Map courtesy Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates
CWD was first diagnosed in southeastern Wyoming (marked in yellow) and over the last three decades has expanded in deer herds. The disease is now bearing down on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the northwest corner of the state and pressing up against the states of both Montana and Idaho. The location of Wyoming's 22 elk feedgrounds are marked by red triangles. The National Elk Refuge is located just south of Yellowstone National Park and east of Grand Teton National Park. Map courtesy Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates
Until the year 2000, CWD was present in 15 Game and Fish hunt areas in the southeast quadrant of the state encompassing about 8.4 million miles.  In the next seven years it was in 32 additional hunt areas covering more than 15 million acres on a westward path.  Between 2008 and 2014, it added another 25 hunt areas and 10 million acres or about 1.39 million acres annually pushing into the middle of Wyoming.


From November 2015 to November 2016—just a single year—the CWD endemic zone grew 3.31 million acres and is now on the verge of reaching Yellowstone, Grand Teton, the Elk Refuge and the state feedgrounds.

The addition of Deer Hunt Area 17 (mentioned in part 1 of this series) made nine new areas in Wyoming in 2016 whereas the annual average between 2001 and 2015 was four new areas.  An emerging hotspot is a hunt area south of Pinedale, Wyoming, on the flanks of the Wind River Mountains and a short jaunt away for a mule deer to the feedgrounds.

Something else worth noting: mule deer numbers in the southern end of Greater Yellowstone are already in serious decline, caused not by CWD or wolves but the impacts of energy development pushing them out of optimal habitat, leaving them more weakened and with less reproduction success. What extra burden does CWD represent to these herds? For Dorsey, a bigger unknown is how it will manifest in elk.

“If CWD takes hold in these elk populations of western Wyoming on the two dozen feedgrounds and then starts to spread as those animals, in turn, disperse more widely in the spring, mixing with other herds scattered across the tri-state area [Wyoming, Montana and Idaho], I don’t think anyone knows what will happen, but it can’t be good,” Dorsey says.

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More than 10 years have passed since the Elk Refuge's initial 2007 EIS decision, and it still lacks a firm plan to meet its requirement of managing for healthy wildlife and habitat. If anything, attempts to address feedgrounds have gone in reverse and at the worst time, with CWD endemic zones creeping inside Greater Yellowstone. The Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t the only agency being criticized as an accomplice to disaster.

In June of 2017, the Forest Service was sued by the Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and Gallatin Wildlife Association after it issued a permit allowing Wyoming to continue operating the Alkali Creek Feedground on the Bridger-Teton Forest east of the Elk Refuge near the Gros Ventre Wilderness and Gros Ventre River.

Forest Service biologists have admitted that the Gros Ventre Valley, a side dell to Jackson Hole, can, during mild to average winters, support 3,000 elk on natural forage without human nutritional assistance. That’s on top of the thousands of elk that similarly could be wintered at the Elk Refuge. Poignantly, Bridger-Teton officials acknowledged the Alkali Creek Feedground “could become a reservoir for CWD infection.”

Readers who are not students of the federal-state relationship involving public land management might not realize that while federal lands provide large expanses of habitat for wildlife, much of the management of the animals themselves fall under state purview. One exception is wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act.

However, federal agencies are required to assess the impacts of activities occurring inside their boundaries, whether those activities are proposed by private interests or other government entities. Wyoming’s feedgrounds, given number of sites and animal numbers involved, could be categorized as an industrial strength operation.

By federal law, the Forest Service is legally mandated to manage for wildlife health. When the Forest Service conducts environmental analyses on, say, a proposed logging or energy development, the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act require that individual forests weigh the impacts on wildlife.

When the Bridger-Teton was deciding whether to greenlight a new permit for the Alkali Creek Feedground, Dorsey and others submitted multi-page written comments highlighting scientific documents and expert opinions of researchers to Bridger-Teton Forest Supervisor Tricia O’Connor and her staff. O’Connor acknowledged in her decision of record in December 2015 that one of the main reasons she approved feeding was basically to keep elk addicted to artificial feed so they wouldn’t end up migrating across private ranchlands and potentially exposing cattle to disease. She used the same rationale that was invoked when the Bridger-Teton granted permits to continue five other state-run feedgrounds on Forest Service lands in 2008. CWD is much closer to the feedgrounds now than it was in 2008. 

Why does the Forest Service continue to issue permits to Wyoming Game and Fish for feeding elk when the science outlining the dangers of feedgrounds compounding a dire disease threat to wildlife is clear, conservationists ask. 

Preso points out identical contradictions in the lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service. Federal judges agreed with him.  Such guidance is especially clear in the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1997. It is essentially an “Organic Act” for the Fish and Wildlife Service and instructs the agency to manage for the optimal welfare of the species on refuge lands.

The Bridger-Teton also appeared to ignore the fact that the D.C. Circuit agreed with conservationists that its federal neighbor, the Elk Refuge, had violated federal laws by not taking action to address the looming disease risk.

So, here is a question that could be logically posed: How is the menace of CWD possibly polluting Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife with a fatal pathogen, capable of causing toxic contamination in the environment, any different from, say, a private company’s proposed hard rock mine if such a project has the potential to damage a public waterway with harmful tailings? 
So, here is a question that could be logically posed: How is the menace of CWD possibly polluting Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife with a fatal pathogen, capable of causing toxic contamination in the environment, any different from, say, a private company’s proposed hard rock mine if such a project has the potential to damage a public waterway with harmful tailings? 
If a mine were shown to have a high probability of fouling a trout stream or drinking water supply, there is no doubt the permit would be denied.  Except, in the case with Wyoming feedgrounds, these are government agencies legitimizing their own known violation of federal laws specially enacted to protect wildlife health; moreover, they abrogate the very tenets of the public trust doctrine pertaining to wildlife as spelled out in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, Preso says.

° ° °

Does Wyoming know better?  The unequivocal answer is yes.

During the late 1980s, Wyoming rancher Thomas Dorrance, best known for being an heir to the family that created Campbell’s Soups, pressed to open a game ranch for exotic wildlife near Sundance, Wyoming.

Dorrance wanted to create a Texas-style fenced-in compound on about 4200 acres inside his 17,000-acre ranch. Among the possible species were non-native Russian boar, red, roe, sika, axis and fallow deer, ibex, chamois, Barbary, mouflon and Marco Polo sheep. Native animals such as elk, moose, pronghorn and bighorn sheep would also have been part of Dorrance’s menagerie and featured in a drive-through wildlife park, harvested for meat production, traded and sold as breeding stock, and some made available to hunters. 

As a young policy analyst in Canada, Darrel Rowledge came under the tutelage of Dr. Valerius Geist and others who initially welcomed game farming but quickly changed their views in the wake of several disease outbreaks including brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis and in recent years CWD. (We will explore what happened there later in this series).

Rowledge, today director of the Alliance for Public Wildlife in Calgary, is intimately familiar with the controversy that ensued over Dorrance’s proposal.  “When Dorrance submitted his application, Tom Thorne and Beth Williams responded by saying ‘You’re going to do what? Put wildlife in confinement, create a massive disease factory? Not in Wyoming, you’re not.’”

How does Rowledge know this? He was invited down to Cheyenne from Canada to provide briefings to Wyoming wildlife officials and lawmakers on the dangers of game farms, this following outbreaks of disease in Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

For many years Dr. Thorne served as Wyoming’s chief wildlife veterinarian and his wife, Dr. Beth Williams, was a widely respected CWD researcher who worked with Dr. Mike Miller, a nationally-renowned researcher in Colorado. Their concerns were shared by Robert Lanka of Wyoming Game and Fish who was lead author of a report titled "Analysis and Recommendations on the Application by Mr. John T. Dorrance III to Import and Possess Native and Exotic Species."

Wyoming officials, their decision based largely on the findings of Lanka, Thorne, Williams and world-class consulting colleagues, turned down Dorrance’s permit application.

"We've got three or four options. We can accept it, we can take it into the court system, attack it legislatively to seek some changes in the Wyoming statutes or a combination of the last two,” Dorrance, angered by the decision, told a reporter. "If we pursue it [a court challenge] and win we are still faced with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. They might be very bitter and vindictive. They could make our life impossible."

Ultimately, Dorrance sued the state—and lost. “Wyoming’s justification withstood every single challenge. It was the only government that ever did a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis on the dangers of game farming and congregating wildlife,” Rowledge told me. "It was the overwhelming conclusion, based on the best of the best scientific minds, that it would be a disaster."

Wyoming Game and Fish Commission President Don Scott said at the time, defending the state’s position:  "We have wild and free-ranging herds that are truly a national treasure and we just don't believe that that treasure should be placed in jeopardy, even a remote jeopardy. We don't want to turn Wyoming into Texas."

Thorne and Williams, members of the Wildlife Disease Association, died tragically in a traffic accident in 2004.

Rowledge argues that Wyoming over the past 25 years has lost its way. “It’s kind of crazy what the state position is today on keeping feedgrounds open. In terms of what they do, there’s really no difference between them and game farms, except the feedgrounds involves larger numbers of animals and public wildlife that is free-ranging,” he said.

Still, he remembers Drs. Thorne and Williams with fondness.  “I have tremendous respect for them. They were willing to alter their perspective in accordance with new scientific discoveries,” he said. “Had they lived, and were they to know what we do today about CWD, I have no doubt they would conclude that operating the feedgrounds is a terribly bad idea.”

More than a quarter century ago, around the same time that the Dorrance case was playing out, another one hit the courts. This one involved a trial and the Parker Land & Cattle Company near Dubois.  It had filed suit for damages after its domestic cows became infected with brucellosis and were ordered destroyed.  The plaintiff's lawyer was former Wyoming Governor and Interior Secretary Stan Hathaway who foreshadowed the opinion of the D.C. Circuit Court two decades later. Hathaway referred to management practices at the Elk Refuge and, by association, the state feedgrounds as "a cesspool of disease."

° ° °

Where is Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who has been in office since 2011 and is serving out the remainder of his last term?  By his record, he has dodged action just like many of his predecessors along with the Game and Fish Department under his command. He says elk would perish in vast number if feedgrounds were abruptly shuttered but former Elk Refuge biologist Smith notes that no one has proposed closing them cold turkey. Instead, he and others have proposed reducing feeding incrementally over a span of years until elk numbers reach carrying capacity in accordance with available natural habitat.

Dinners around the Thanksgiving table in Jackson Hole must be interesting ones for the Mead family when the topic of CWD comes up. Just as the conversations must be colorful between John Turner, who holds a master’s degree in wildlife biology, and his brother, Harold. 

Gov. Mead grew up in Jackson Hole and is the grandson of former governor and U.S. senator Cliff Hansen. At the start of Danny Schmidt’s documentary Feeding the Problem, Mead’s older brother, Jackson Hole rancher and attorney Brad Mead, was interviewed. He   caught flack from some in the community for being forthright about his views on CWD. Over the years whenever I've interviewed him, I've found him to be smart, articulate and well-read. An amateur astronomer, he believes in science.

“From what I’ve heard about Chronic Wasting Disease, it’s not a pretty thing to watch,” Brad Mead told Schmidt on camera. “I have to believe that tourism would suffer a lot if people driving by on the highway past the Elk Refuge saw animals dying from Chronic Wasting Disease in the hundreds or the thousands.”  
“From what I’ve heard about Chronic Wasting Disease, it’s not a pretty thing to watch. I have to believe that tourism would suffer a lot if people driving by on the highway past the Elk Refuge saw animals dying from Chronic Wasting Disease in the hundreds or the thousands.”  —Jackson Hole rancher Brad Mead, older brother of Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead
Brad Mead at the end of Feeding the Problem says the compelling science persuaded him that feedgrounds need to be phased out, admitting it will be far better for elk and the ecological health of the region over the long run.

 “I don’t have a huge issue with brucellosis as a disease. I don’t think most cattle producers are that panicky about brucellosis and I don’t think most outfitters are panicky about brucellosis but Chronic Wasting Disease, that’s a whole ‘nother deal,” Mead said. If CWD turns up in the Elk Refuge, he believes it could be “a biological crisis of the first order.”

Picture this hypothetical scenario playing out in Jackson Hole along U.S. Highways 89/191, a possibility imagined by both Bruce Smith in his book and by Brad Mead in Schmidt’s documentary: sharpshooters on the Elk Refuge enlisted to basically destroy a significant percentage of the most iconic elk population in America to contain a pathogen.  Wapiti would have to be mowed down and removed in order to prevent the refuge from turning into a massive contamination zone.

° ° °

Greater Yellowstone is supposed to be an American beacon for smart custodianship of America’s public lands, and it’s fair to say many Americans believe it to be true. But the feedground controversy has numerous negative ripple effects and is laden with epic levels of hypocrisy, Preso notes.

For example, the Elk Refuge continues to feed elk that during some winters are in numbers 50 percent over its own management objectives. Right next door across an artificial boundary in Grand Teton Park, park officials sanction a controversial elk hunt inside the national park boundaries (the only one of its kind in a U.S. national park) to reduce the number of elk.

That, in turn, causes dangerous encounters between hunters and grizzly bears. In fact, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees management of the Elk Refuge and until recently was in charge of managing imperiled grizzly bears, said it fully expects that bears will die in run-ins with elk hunters inside Grand Teton.

Ironically, Wyoming Game and Fish assembled a CWD action plan in 2016 and put it out for public review. The state offered only vague generalities for how it will respond when disease strikes the feedgrounds yet the plan included these acknowledgments:

“Disease transmission can be related to density of animals in a given area as well as the frequency of contact between animals. Artificially concentrating elk on feedgrounds may result in more rapid spread of CWD and contribute to increased persistence of prions in the soil and uptake by vegetation. Based on WGFD hunter-harvested CWD surveillance data, CWD prevalence levels in non-fed elk populations remain significantly lower than those of sympatric mule deer and white-tailed deer populations in the core endemic area of Wyoming.”

The report added that “recent modeling based on a combination of captive and free-ranging elk data suggested that feedground elk may survive in the face of CWD at significantly reduced numbers through a combination of genetic selection and elimination of antlerless elk harvest.”

Moreover, the department stated that “even though [CWD] eradication is not feasible at this time, the WGFD will consider management actions to slow the spread and/or reduce the prevalence of the disease statewide, especially west of the Continental Divide, based on accepted scientific information and wildlife management practices.”
“I don’t know that anything else exists with management policy in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so blatantly contrary to the science, the law and common sense and involves a state that is so resistant to change." —Tim Preso, attorney with environmental law firm EarthJustice
Like the Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service, Dorsey notes that Wyoming cites the science and then willfully disregards it.

In a career of practicing environmental law, Preso says that seldom has he encountered more egregious mismanagement from government land and wildlife agencies—state and federal working together. “I don’t know that anything else exists with management policy in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so blatantly contrary to the science, the law and common sense and involves a state that is so resistant to change,” he said.

What is the truth no one is willing to publicly admit? Politicians in Wyoming fear that if they support closing the feedgrounds, they won’t get elected.  It's no different from being a politician in a coal-producing state and denying human-caused climate change or coming from a tobacco-growing state and refusing to publicly acknowledge that smoking cigarettes causes cancer.

But it’s more than that: many don’t want to say anything that challenges the beliefs of culture, whether based on fact or not. There is huge pressure in local communities to conform to the status quo or face shunning and being socially ostracized.

Eventually, Preso says, truth prevails and with CWD he fears it will only emerge from a preventable crisis.

For now, he wants to know why federal civil servants working for the Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service would knowingly break the law. Further, why would Wyoming knowingly shirk science?

Another profound irony that will be explored later in this series is that Wyoming’s state wildlife research facility at Sybille Canyon along the foot of the Laramie Mountains was renamed the Tom Thorne/Beth Williams Research Center. There, an experiment involving CWD and elk confirmed just how lethal the disease risk is but a Wyoming veterinarian minimized its dire implications.

Darrel Rowledge recalls having conversations with Thorne and Williams about the public trust doctrine and the precautionary principle, the latter being a governing tenet to err on the side of caution when dealing with consequences of possible actions that could prove catastrophic. 

Nameless, faceless bureaucrats don’t make decisions, he says. Individual people do. Rowledge points to recent criminal charges involving public officials and an outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease, a bacterial disease, in and around Flint, Michigan. The assertion is that the disease outbreak can be traced to known problems with the city’s water supply that those in charge of public health agencies ignored.

“Governments and individual people that dare to ignore the precautionary principle and public trust doctrine can face criminal charges,” Rowledge said. “Could it happen with those who look after the welfare of public wildlife?  Could it happen if one day people come down with a prion disease caused by eating a CWD-infected deer or elk?  Who will be called to answer when injury comes to the public good and those in charge are shown to have either ignored the truth or looked the other way?”


WATCH:  Danny Schmidt's documentary at Montana PBS Feeding the Problem 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Just a few days after Part One of Mountain Journal's series on Chronic Wasting Disease appeared, titled "Greater Yellowstone's Coming Plague," the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks issued a public statement announcing that it was bolstering its surveillance for disease in wildlife, particularly along the state's southern border with Wyoming.  In coming installments of Mountain Journal's series, the impacts of CWD on wildlife in other areas, its possible implications for Greater Yellowstone, and threats to livestock and human health will be examined.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition of asking hard questions and pressing for honest answers. For more on his career, click below.
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