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Lawsuit Filed to Phase Out Elk Feeding at WY Refuge

More than 20,000 elk have access to the feedlots at the National Elk Refuge in the winter. (Lori Iverson/USFWS)
More than 20,000 elk have access to the feedlots at the National Elk Refuge in the winter. (Lori Iverson/USFWS)
March 20, 2019

JACKSON, Wyo. - 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 and recently was found in a deer in Grand Teton National Park, near the refuge.

"It's high time that they did issue a plan to transition away from the disease-ridden conditions that are characteristic of artificially concentrating the elk and bison together for weeks and months during wintertime to a more natural, healthier paradigm." said Lloyd Dorsey, conservation program manager for the Sierra Club's Wyoming chapter.

CWD, a cousin to Mad Cow Disease, is a degenerative brain illness that always is fatal. Dorsey said it's probably already in the refuge but has yet to be detected. 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."

Dorsey said the spread of CWD among wildlife could even affect Wyoming's tourism economy.

"The phasing out of these feed grounds, including the feeding program in the National Elk Refuge, is necessary," he said. "Otherwise, it will adversely affect the economy in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that's based on abundant wildlife. And they should be healthy and free-ranging wildlife."

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 - WY