Game and Fish tackles elk feedground changes
SUBLETTE COUNTY – With the fatal, infectious and perhaps uncontrollable Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) creeping west to afflict wildlife, especially mule deer and elk, Wyoming Game and Fish began considering its winter elk feedground program.
On July 26, at the public meeting about the plan at the Pinedale Library, a half-dozen Jackson and Pinedale regional biologists and state wildlife experts, as part of a Game and Fish working-group, explained how the draft plan was designed.
Jackson Regional Wildlife Supervisor Brad Hovinga explained while Game and Fish was updating its CWD surveillance and management plan, it became obvious that winter elk feedgrounds was its own huge topic that needed a focus. Feedgrounds are historically a way to keep elk unable to migrate to winter ranges from raiding private haystacks.
Elk on feedgrounds generally have higher disease transmission.
Game and Fish operates 22 feedgrounds in western Wyoming, in Sublette, Teton and Lincoln counties. Two longtime employees, Gary Hornberger and Dave Hyde, oversee feedground operations and contracted feeders, often ranchers living nearby.
Pinedale Wildlife Supervisor John Lund said the goal is to reduce elk reliance on winter feedgrounds. “It is not a feedground closure plan.”
Some local ranchers had voiced concerns after the draft’s release that if not fed in winter, elk would commingle with their livestock and transmit brucellosis, which is monitored in western Wyoming to keep elk away from cattle and domestic bison herds, Lund said.
“We got a lot of concern over this one,” Lund said. “This is not a plan to put livestock producers out of business. That will be made clearer.”
The elk feedground draft plan calls for individualized feedground management action plans (FMAPs) that once in place, Game and Fish employees, elk feeders and stakeholders can reinforce a longterm local management plan.
“Feedgrounds are a major source of wildlife diseases,” said Infectious disease biologist Sam Allen of Cheyenne. CWD is paramount and so far, “impossible to eradicate.” Neither wildlife nor livestock can be vaccinated or cured for CWD.
Pinedale Wildlife Coordinator Brandon Scurlock reviewed elk feedgrounds’ century of management, relating the socioeconomic aspects of buying hay, hunting elk and contracting local elk feeders. He advocated habitat improvement as a main goal to provide winter forage away from feedgrounds so elk grow less reliant on them
“We have not always been on the same page to managing elk,” Hovinga said. This plan would create “overarching direction for our employees” and “unified goals” for decades to come.
Public understanding and strong support of Game and Fish’s management goals are necessary, he said, while maintaining population objectives for elk while weighing in mule deer, pronghorn and moose “also trying to survive winter.”
Some solutions might be “big ticket items” that the public, hunters and Game and Fish will need to understand and support, he added.
Facilitator Tara Kuipers provided the timeline. On Aug. 30, stakeholders will meet in Pinedale for a “wrap-up meeting.” Public comments are due Sept. 10 and can be submitted online. The regional feedground working group will review those comments and finish revisions for a solid proposal. That is slated to go before the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission for a vote at its Nov. 14-15 meeting in Gillette.
The revised draft will be available in the commissioners’ packets before the meeting for the public to review, Kuipers said. Also, the July 25 Zoom meeting is posted for the public to watch.
Q & A
The current draft plan shows the “quota” for each feedground’s wintering elk, which in nearly every case, is much lower than actual winter counts. Hovinga said these quotas haven’t changed since the 1980s and will be updated; methods to reduce elk populations as needed would be locally discussed.
Allen was asked about CWD prevalence in a herd or region. She said CWD is detected in five elk feedgrounds – “The only thing that changes is the disease prevalence.”
Hovinga said increased sampling by hunters and biologists would not necessarily mean increased elk infections. When 10 percent or higher prevalence is detected for three or more years, Game and Fish would evaluate a feedground’s options for closure.
Former Game and Fish Commissioner Mike Schmidt asked if a feedground’s CWD prevalence is that high, “what happens; do you annihilate the elk herd?”
Lund said Game and Fish would be required to follow its FMAP with commission approval.
“If we get 10-percent prevalence on an elk feedground, you’re going to see the impacts (of the fatal disease,” Hovinga said. “The public will see it – we may have broader options if that happens.”
Rancher and House Rep. Albert Sommers asked about the prevalence in eastern Wyoming, with no elk feedgrounds. Allen said it ranges from 5 to 10 percent in free-ranging Laramie Mountain elk herds.
Hovinga pointed out eastern Wyoming elk have a doubled calf production compared to feedground elk and don’t have wolves as predators. Sommers asked how those elk were affected by CWD; Allen called the comparison “apples and oranges.”
Rancher Joel Bousman asked for assurances that CWD management actions wouldn’t affect the state’s brucellosis prevalence.
“Good comment,” Hovinga said. “Something we need to make clear is we don’t want to sacrifice one for the other.”
Jackson Wildlife Management Coordinator Cheyenne Stewart stated “assurances” would be clarified in the revised plan’s sideboards.
Rancher Mike Vickrey returned to potentially brucellosis transmission between cattle and elk that are encouraged to rely less on winter feedgrounds.
“With these diseases, brucellosis could break out on any ranch in Sublette County,” Vickrey said. “If you try to manage around a feedground, it may not affect the industry as a whole but there is someone out there it could break.”
Schmidt posed the concept of convincing elk to begin migrating again to the Red Desert – “There’s enough room there.”
Lund was taken with the idea as “a great opportunity” to collaborate with agencies, landowners and interest groups to provide passage, habitat and forage along the way.
“It would be really neat to do that,” Lund said. “What kinds of issues and problems it would have….”
It means finding “specific solutions to those obstacles,” Hovinga said. “A lot of times it comes down to money, for making changes. In the FMAP process, you figure out a solution and then how to get there.”
Read and comment by Sept. 10 on the draft Wyoming Elk Feedground Management Plan at https://wgfd.wyo.gov/get-involved.