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Wyoming Elk: To Feed or Not to Feed during the Winter?

Thousands of elk in western Wyoming feeding on hay and alfalfa pellets. The practice is being debated. Credit: Lloyd Dorsey.
Thousands of elk in western Wyoming feeding on hay and alfalfa pellets. The practice is being debated. Credit: Lloyd Dorsey.
August 31, 2015

JACKSON, Wy. - "To feed, or not to feed?" is the question being debated when it comes to elk in western Wyoming.

A decision to renew a feeding permit is pending in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and there are at least 30 other feeding sites.

Herds have been fed during the winter for more than 75 years, a practice that came into play to restore populations after they were over-hunted.

Lloyd Dorsey, conservation director with the Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, says that was well-intentioned, but it isn't needed anymore and should be phased out.

"The unintended consequences are these elk are contracting diseases because they're kept in disease-ridden conditions," says Dorsey.

The elk are confined when they show up for feeding, and Dorsey says that kind of environment is ripe for hoof rot, which can and has killed elk at feeding grounds. He adds the bigger looming threat is chronic wasting disease an always-fatal infection that is highly contagious.

A decision is expected soon from the Bridger-Teton Forest on whether to re-permit elk feeding at Alkali Creek.

Dorsey acknowledges seeing elk hungry can tug at the heart strings, but he describes the species as rugged and well-evolved to survive even the most brutal winters as long as they have room to roam.

"The elk in western Wyoming would actually be healthier if we transitioned them to the bountiful, available habitat on our public lands and other lands in western Wyoming," says Dorsey.

The roaming factor is one reason why proponents want the elk to be fed, so they do not graze on private and public land used for livestock grazing. Supporters of feeding are also concerned elk could transmit infections to domestic animals if they roam in search of food.

Deborah Courson Smith/Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - WY