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Groups Seek to Avert Disease in Jackson Hole Elk Refuge

Conservation groups say artificially feeding elk in the winter can increase the spread of fatal conditions such as chronic wasting disease. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Conservation groups say artificially feeding elk in the winter can increase the spread of fatal conditions such as chronic wasting disease. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
December 6, 2018

JACKSON, Wyo. – A coalition of conservation groups wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to phase out wintertime efforts to feed the elk at the Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge.

The groups are concerned that elk feeding in large groups could worsen the spread of lethal chronic wasting disease, which was recently detected for the first time in the region but not yet in the refuge.

Timothy Preso, an attorney with Earthjustice, says the feeding program makes it more likely that the malady will spread.

"Chronic wasting disease is transmitted by these abnormal proteins that get into the soil and into the vegetation,” he explains. “And there's really no known means to eradicate them, so that literally, the refuge would become a disease infection zone for elk that come back to graze."

Earthjustice – along with Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Refuge Association and the Sierra Club – sent a letter this week to the Fish and Wildlife Service, urging the agency to phase out the winter feeding plan and let the elk forage in their natural habitat.

Preso says such a plan was developed by the agency in 2008 but has been held up for a decade due to wrangling between federal and Wyoming officials.

Preso explains chronic wasting is similar to mad cow disease in cattle and is always fatal.

He adds the situation in the elk refuge is on the verge of becoming critical.

"With the time that earlier debate played out, chronic wasting disease was a few counties away,” he states. “Now, it's on the doorstep.

“And we let a decade slip by with no progress, which is very unfortunate because now, the consequences of that delay are becoming much more clear."

Preso says Fish and Wildlife did not feed the elk during last year's mild winter, and the herd survived without a major problem.

He says his group is sounding the alarm in hopes the agency will respond to this year's request without being taken to court.

"We haven't taken any additional legal action, because we wanted to come back to the Service and see if they will take a responsible initiative in this moment to address this issue before we have a wildlife disease disaster on the elk refuge," he states.

Preso says the winter feedings would need to be phased out over time, so the refuge's 8,000 elk can re-adopt their natural foraging behaviors.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - WY