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Two Wyoming Elk Feedgrounds in Limbo Amid CWD Concerns

Game and Fish department weighs whether or not to close two feedgrounds for elk safety

USGS found that closing feedgrounds in western Wyoming would likely cause a significant dropoff in regional elk numbers. But the elk would benefit in the long-term by avoiding mortality caused by CWD. Photo by Mark Goeke, WGFD
USGS found that closing feedgrounds in western Wyoming would likely cause a significant dropoff in regional elk numbers. But the elk would benefit in the long-term by avoiding mortality caused by CWD. Photo by Mark Goeke, WGFD
by Julia Barton

Wyoming elk are in trouble.

Land managers predict that chronic wasting disease will cause elk populations in the Afton and Upper Green River herd units to drop by 35 and 57 percent respectively over the next two decades if two northwestern Wyoming feedgrounds continue operating.

The Dell Creek and Forest Park feedgrounds, managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Committee, have been operating under recently expired special-use permits since the 1970s to operate in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Both have requested new 20-year permits but the U.S. Forest Service is concerned about the
Dell Creek, one of two feedgrounds in Wyoming whose special-use permits recently expired. Photo by Mark Gocke, WGFD
Dell Creek, one of two feedgrounds in Wyoming whose special-use permits recently expired. Photo by Mark Gocke, WGFD
spread of chronic wasting disease.

CWD is a fatal neurological illness found in cervids that, since its discovery in 1967, has spread across 23 states and into two Canadian provinces. Yellowstone National Park recorded its first CWD case earlier this year.

The Forest Service last month released a draft environmental impact statement assessing implications of four scenarios at the two feedgrounds: permitting the feedgrounds to operate as is; a three-year phase-out; emergency feeding only; and ceasing use of the feedgrounds altogether. The agency did not list a preference in the statement.

“We didn’t select a preferred alternative in the DEIS because there’s a couple of dual processes going on right now,” said Randy Griebel, ecosystem staff officer for the Bridger-Teton forest, referring to ongoing feedground analyses by the National Elk Refuge and the state of Wyoming. “We didn’t want to influence them and vice versa.”
The Bridger-Teton National Forest boundary, ranger district boundaries, elk herd unit boundaries, National Elk Refuge, staging area (North Piney), and WGFC-managed feedgrounds. Map courtesy Bridger-Teton National Forest
The Bridger-Teton National Forest boundary, ranger district boundaries, elk herd unit boundaries, National Elk Refuge, staging area (North Piney), and WGFC-managed feedgrounds. Map courtesy Bridger-Teton National Forest
Supplemental winter feeding has been used to manage elk in the region for over a century in an effort to reduce wildlife damage, maintain populations for hunting opportunities, and keep elk off of private land. Together, the two feedgrounds serve an average of over 1,000 elk annually from mid-November through April. Griebel explained that while the use of these feedgrounds has a relatively small impact on regional elk populations, feedgrounds as a whole carry massive implications, and the DEIS considers both scales.
Discovered in 1967, CWD is a fatal neurological illness found in cervids that has now spread across 23 U.S. states and into two Canadian provinces.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey study used to inform the Forest Service’s impact statement, closing feedgrounds in western Wyoming would likely cause a
The Dell Creek and Forest Park feedgrounds may be on the chopping block due to CWD concerns. Here, Wyoming Game and Fish distributes hay to elk at the state-run Patrol Cabin feedground north of Jackson. Photo by Mark Gocke, WGFD
The Dell Creek and Forest Park feedgrounds may be on the chopping block due to CWD concerns. Here, Wyoming Game and Fish distributes hay to elk at the state-run Patrol Cabin feedground north of Jackson. Photo by Mark Gocke, WGFD
steep and immediate dropoff in regional elk numbers. But the elk would benefit in the long-term.

“The closure of Forest Park and Dell Creek feedgrounds would reduce the total number of CWD mortalities by 9 percent in the Upper Green River Herd Unit and 26 percent in the Afton Herd Unit during the 20-year timespan,” the USGS study predicted.

CWD isn’t the only variable factoring into the decision. Other issues evaluated in the impact statement include transmission of brucellosis to livestock, economic impacts on agricultural production, hunting, and habitat, among others.

“It’s a really difficult management decision,” Griebel said. “The ramifications of [each alternative] have different impacts on different groups of people.”

Given that a recommendation wasn’t made in the DEIS, Griebel said that the Bridger-Teton National Forest is eager to receive feedback from the public regarding the proposed alternatives. Public comment is open until January 16, 2024.
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Julia Barton
About Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a freelance journalist and communications specialist based out of Bozeman. A Montana native, she earned a journalism degree from the University of Southern California and reports on the environment, outdoor recreation and the arts.
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