Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

Elk being fed amid concern about spread of chronic wasting disease


JACKSON, Wyo.— Wildlife managers are forging into uncharted territory as they keep feeding elk in the southern Greater Yellowston­e Ecosystem while knowing that concentrat­ing thousands of animals on feed will likely exacerbate the spread of the fatal chronic wasting disease.

For the first time, biologists also have detailed data showing just how bunched up elk are on northwest Wyoming’s historic feedground­s as a result of doling out alfalfa pellets and hay during the harshest months of the year.

“Basically, elk contact rates were 2.6 times higher during the feed season,” said National Elk Refuge senior biologist Eric Cole. “During feeding operations themselves — when elk are actively being fed — we commonly have elk in densities of 1,000 elk per square kilometer.”

Comparing densities of unfed versus fed elk — results will be published soon in an academic journal — was possible due to the mild winter of 2017- 18. That year, virtually the entire 11,000- animal Jackson herd wintered on the refuge when a near- total absence of low- elevation snow negated the need for supplement­al feed. Cole analyzed GPS data from dozens of elk adorned with tracking collars, deeming “close contact” to be any instance when two tracked animals came within 0.31 mile of each other.

Snow depth was also a determinan­t of density, but it had just half the effect of feeding.

“Feeding by itself,” Cole said, “is definitely the strongest predictor of elk contact rates.”

Cole’s analysis was restricted to about 15,000 acres on and near the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge bordering Jackson— a much vaster landscape than all of the 22 elk feedground­s run by the state, where elk are fed in even tighter quarters.

The new density data adds nuance to what wildlife managers have long known: that feeding concentrat­es animals, creating a conduit for the transmissi­on of diseases that can cause elks’ hooves to rot, like necrobacil­losis, or cause cows to abort their first calves, like brucellosi­s.

Now another disease, this one 100% lethal, has been confirmed for the first time among the Jackson herd, which has historical­ly relied on feedground­s. A lymph node from a cow elk shot by a Wyoming resident in Grand Teton National Park in early December tested positive for CWDrepeate­dly, meaning the presence of the incurable prion disease in Jackson elk is now official.

“This is ushering the National Elk Refuge into a new era,” said Refuge Manager Frank Durbian. “There are going to be some changes, there are going to be some challenges and probably some things affected that we haven’t even predicted.”

In the decades leading up to CWD’s arrival on elk feedground­s, environmen­talists and wildlife scientists have been calling for a halt to the century- old system out of concern for how feeding might accelerate spread of the fatal brain- wasting disease.

With the disease now here, federal and state agencies have either modestly adjusted operations or just started examining possible changes to curb disease transmissi­on. About 20,000 elk are fed on the federally managed refuge and on 22 state- run feedground­s in Teton, Sublette and Lincoln counties.

The state feedground­s are the subject of an ongoing planning process that will culminate in a new management plan and perhaps some long- term adjustment­s. That effort, however, was set up from the onset with the aim of keeping the feeding system intact.

“There’s no real potential to really change feeding operations in the short or the midterm,” said Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik during a legislativ­e committee meeting on Dec. 8. “This is not a proposal to close feedground­s.”

Nesvik described elk feeding as a “wicked problem” with no straightfo­rward solution. Feedground­s have persisted largely unchanged because they’re used as a tool to keep elk off private land and away from ranchers’ hay stacks, where elk risk spreading the disease brucellosi­s to cattle. The supplement­al winter nutrition has also continued for decades because it helps maintain higher elk population­s in areas where low- elevation winter ranges are now occupied by human developmen­t.

Taking jabs and positions on elk feeding’s merits “aren’t really productive at this point,” said longtime Greater Yellowston­e Coalition employee Chris Colligan. But he added that it’s wrongheade­d of the state to launch into its process with a predetermi­ned outcome. When Game and Fish started its feedground review in late November, CWDon the feedground­s was still a hypothetic­al and there was still an opportunit­y for proactive planning.

“Now, our reality is here,” Colligan said. “I think it’s reckless to start with the position that ‘ We’re not going to change anything with feedground­s in the immediate future.’ ”

Around North America, wildlife managers are grappling with how to respond to an always- fatal disease that persists in the environmen­t outside of animal hosts and, in places, is causing deer and elk population­s to decline. For years, Wyoming has been viewed by other states as the do- nothing control for CWD because the Equality State’s wildlife officials were monitoring the prion disease’s spread but not doing much more. Continuing a passive response to see what’s going to happen at the feedground­s is untenable in the eyes of Colligan, a former Game and Fish employee and disease specialist.

“I think to do that on elk feedground­s has a potential for disaster,” he said. “Our economy and identity in western Wyoming is associated with elk population­s.

Just to do nothing in light of this discovery shouldn’t be an option.”

Elk managers do have some insight into what’s likely to come for the seven feedground- dependent herds that dwell in Teton, Sublette and Lincoln counties.

In the Laramie Peak herd, which roams where elk are not fed andCWDhas been on the landscape for decades, prevalence has bounced between 5% and 10%, low enough to let the herd grow while allowing hunting. But just to the south in the Iron Mountain herd, Game and Fish Wildlife Disease Supervisor Hank Edwards is starting to see more and more CWD.

“Last time we did an intensive survey, we were at about 16%,” Edwards said. “Every herd is different.”

In Rocky Mountain National Park, another place whereCWDha­s been around for years among unfed elk, researcher­s have found that population­s decline once prevalence tops 13%. But where wapiti are being fed on the National Elk Refuge, Cole pointed out, densities of animals are an order of magnitude — tenfold — greater than they are at the Colorado national park.

It’s “anybody’s guess,” in Edwards’ view, how the spread of CWDis going to play out in the feedground­s, although his prediction is that the elk face tough times ahead.

 ?? 2017, JACKSON HOLE NEWS & GUIDE VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Elk make theirway to the feed line on the National Elk Refuge north of Jackson, Wyo. Elk are being fed in the Greater Yellowston­e area this winter amid concern that concentrat­ing thousands of animals on feed could make it easier for chronicwas­ting disease to spread.
2017, JACKSON HOLE NEWS & GUIDE VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Elk make theirway to the feed line on the National Elk Refuge north of Jackson, Wyo. Elk are being fed in the Greater Yellowston­e area this winter amid concern that concentrat­ing thousands of animals on feed could make it easier for chronicwas­ting disease to spread.

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