The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is considering a revision of its winter elk feeding program, which the agency claims won’t lead to any large-scale shutdowns of feedgrounds in western Wyoming.
A former Wyoming Game and Fish Commission member and a rancher said they’re skeptical of the direction the revision could take.
Mike Schmid of La Barge, who served on the Game and Fish Commission, told Cowboy State Daily that he doesn’t want the revision process to become an opportunity for “the ‘anti’ groups to shut down our elk feedgrounds.”
In a recent column, Cowboy State Daily agriculture columnist Cat Urbikit, a sheep rancher, stated that she’s concerned about feedground closures hurting ranchers.
Draft Plan Released
Game and Fish recently released a draft management plan for the elk feedgrounds.
A group of 60 volunteer public stakeholders, under the guidance of a facilitator, have since 2020 been discussing the state of, and possible revisions to, elk feeding programs, according to Game and Fish. The draft plan is the result of their work.
“The overall goal of the plan is to reduce elk’s reliance on feedgrounds while increasing opportunities for elk to winter away from feedgrounds in an effort to decrease disease transmission amongst the elk,” according to Game and Fish.
The agency also wants to maintain elk population objectives and public hunting opportunity in the affected areas, limit elk damage to private property, curb disease transmission from elk to livestock, and limit competition between elk and other wildlife species.
There has been growing concern that the concentration of elk at winter feedgrounds has increased the transmission of chronic wasting disease (CWD) among elk. CWD kills infected wildlife, and has taken a heavy toll on some of Wyoming’s mule deer herds.
In her column, Urbigkit said some of the language in the draft has her worried.
“While the state plan focuses on actions to “reduce or eliminate reliance of elk on supplemental feed,” the plan is stunningly similar to environmental advocate proposals to eliminate all elk feedgrounds in favor of elk free ranging in winter across broad swathes of Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties,” she wrote.
Schmid said he’s also concerned about the effects feedground closures could have on agriculture and hunting.
On one hand, he said that he understands the concern over CWD.
However, without the feedgrounds, elk might start trying to raid more ranches for hay and other food sources, which would greatly increase the risk of brucellosis being spread from elk to cattle.
Brucellosis causes infected cattle to abort their calves. Loss of “brucellosis free” can devastate ranchers’ ability to market their cattle, especially to other states.
Schmid said he worries if feedgounds are shut down, the resulting damage to ranches could force Game and Fish to greatly reduce elk numbers in western Wyoming, which would mean the loss of hunting opportunity in some prime areas.
Meanwhile, some ranchers in eastern Wyoming have complained that what they say is an overabundance of elk is costing them in terms of loss of forage for their cattle.
And this winter, the Game and Fish established an emergency elk feeding ground in the Star Valley area to keep hungry elk there from plowing through fences and gorging on ranchers’ haystacks.
Public Will Have Its Say
Schmid said the elk feeding program has been going on in Wyoming since the early 20th Century, and has proven effective.
“Through the years, it’s proven to be an effective way to manage our elk,” he said. “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.”
The Game and Fish wants to hear from the public before making any decisions. A series of public meetings is planned, giving people a chance to speak their minds.
July 24: Teton County Public Library, Jackson, 6 p.m.
July 25: Online via Zoom, 6 p.m.
July 26: Sublette County Public Library, Pinedale, 6 p.m.
July 27: Afton Civic Center, Afton, 6 p.m.
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.