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Groups Sue Feds to End Disease-Spreading Elk Feeding

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Concern is growing that artificially feeding elk on the National Elk Refuge could become a catalyst for chronic wasting disease in the Mountain West. (Diane Borgreen/USFWS)
Concern is growing that artificially feeding elk on the National Elk Refuge could become a catalyst for chronic wasting disease in the Mountain West. (Diane Borgreen/USFWS)
March 20, 2019

HELENA, Mont. - With the threat of chronic wasting disease spreading, conservation groups are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to jump-start a process to phase out supplemental elk feeding.

The agency's decade-old commitment to phase out artificial feeding in Wyoming's National Elk Refuge has stalled, and the groups say the agency needs to act soon because these feedlots are breeding grounds for disease. The most serious concern is chronic wasting disease, which has spread to at least 24 states, including Montana.

Bonnie Rice, a senior representative with the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign, said CWD was detected in a deer in Grand Teton National Park near the refuge.

"Given the threat of CWD and the fact that it's on the refuge's doorstep," she said, "it's really inexcusable, given the advance of this disease and the role of feed grounds in spreading disease, that the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn't taken action."

Rice said the disease already could be present in the refuge.

CWD, a cousin to Mad Cow Disease, is a degenerative brain illness that always is fatal. Feeding began at the refuge more than a century ago to sustain elk through the winter and resolve conflicts with ranchers feeding livestock.

Fish and Wildlife officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Geoffrey Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, said CWD can get into the soil and infect wildlife. He said that's a problem in the Wyoming refuge, where more than 20,000 elk have access to the feedlots in winter.

"If they're all clustered together in such a large group in such a small space, it will just take off like crazy," he said. "So, it's been a concern for many, many years. It's not going away and something just needs to be done soon to disperse the animals, to not have such a terrible thing just waiting to happen."

There also is concern the disease could jump to humans, although that has yet to happen.

The lawsuit is online at earthjustice.org.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT