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Wildlife Groups Sue to Press Fish and Wildlife on Elk Feedlot

Elk at winter feedlots are at risk of chronic wasting disease, which assaults the central nervous systems of elk, deer and moose, resulting in brain lesions, behavioral changes, a loss of body condition, and always death. (USFWS)
Elk at winter feedlots are at risk of chronic wasting disease, which assaults the central nervous systems of elk, deer and moose, resulting in brain lesions, behavioral changes, a loss of body condition, and always death. (USFWS)
February 6, 2020

JACKSON, Wyo. -- A coalition of conservation groups is taking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court over the agency's proposal to postpone phasing out winter feeding at the Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge.

Recent winters have seen more than 8,000 elk crowded on Refuge feedlines for alfalfa pellets provided by the agency.

Connie Wilbert, director of the Sierra Club's Wyoming chapter, one of the groups joining the lawsuit, says the time for Fish and Wildlife to take steps to prevent the potentially catastrophic spread of disease is now.

"Time is running out," she stresses. "The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to start phasing out feeding on the Elk Refuge now, before it's too late, before the refuge becomes infected with chronic wasting disease."

Wildlife officials detected chronic wasting disease in Jackson Hole in 2018, and biologists say it's just a matter of time before it reaches elk drawn to easy winter food supplies.

Wyoming livestock producers and hunters have urged Fish and Wildlife to keep the winter program in place, to keep elk away from livestock grazing on public lands, and to keep game numbers high.

Wilbert points out that hunters will pay a big price if chronic wasting disease spreads, which could also potentially pose a public health risk for humans.

She adds public lands are not meant for the sole use by agriculture interests, and there are ways for ranchers to minimize elk competing with livestock for food.

"They can fence their haystacks to keep the elk out of their haystacks in the winter," she points out. "The public lands aren't theirs, they're ours, all of us, and elk should be, obviously, allowed to use those landscapes as they always have."

Data collected by state agencies and NGOs show there is enough natural food to sustain the region's elk and other big game over the winter.

The current lawsuit argues, among other things, that the Fish and Wildlife Step-Down Plan ignores advice from its own former chief of wildlife health, who warned the plan "still leaves a substantial risk of catastrophic disease propagation."

Disclosure: Sierra Club, Wyoming Chapter contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Endangered Species & Wildlife, Energy Policy. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY