Wyoming G&F moving ahead on elk feedground planning

Eric Galatas, Wyoming News ServiceJuly 19, 2021Agriculture News
Wyoming News ServiceChronic wasting disease spreads through prions, which, unlike bacterial and viral infections, don't die with infected animals. Prions persist in the soil, and can be transmitted to animals through plants growing in infected areas.

JACKSON, Wyo. — Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is expected to be a hot topic  when the Wyoming Game and Fish Department kicks off phase two of its planning process for managing elk feedgrounds.

Biologists have warned feedgrounds, where animals gather in close quarters, could become superspreader events.

Mark Gocke, public information specialist for the Jackson region at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said CWD outbreaks that started in mule deer and white-tailed deer in southeastern Wyoming have since spread to include elk in the West.

“And it slowly has spread across the state,” Gocke observed. “We detected our first case this winter. It was the first case of an elk that is in proximity to elk feedgrounds. And so it is concerning.”

Livestock producers want feedgrounds, which remove competition for their cattle grazing on public lands. Critics say alternatives, including fencing and range riders, can keep elk away from hay stores.

Outfitters also benefit from an ample supply of big game for hunters, but critics point out the risk of losing entire herds makes continuing the program short-sighted.

Kristin Combs, executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, said Game and Fish’s plan for feedgrounds needs to be aligned with the agency’s mandate to protect wildlife and their habitat for the entire public, not just a narrow set of stakeholders.

“While wildlife issues are people issues too,” Combs contended. “And certainly there are people issues involved with feedgrounds, and that’s why this is a very contentious issue. We also need to be looking at ‘what is best for the elk here?'”

The stakes of the debate are high, with potentially devastating economic impacts if the disease takes hold in the Yellowstone ecosystem. CWD spreads through prions, which do not go away when animals die. They remain in the soil and can be transmitted to more animals through plants.

Gocke emphasized phase two is an opportunity to dig deeper into all stakeholders’ concerns, and craft the best possible path forward.

“We want everything to be laid out on the table,” Gocke stated. “I really believe that when you get a bunch of minds together in a room, you’re able to come up with ideas that you never thought of before, or never thought possible.”