Lethal foot rot on a crowded Wyoming elk feedground-

Dead elk on Camp Creek feedground. Spring 2014.

Dead elk on Camp Creek feedground. Spring 2014.

In late April, 2014, travelers on U.S. Highway 191 along the Hoback River south of Jackson Hole reported seeing staggering, emaciated elk and elk carcasses. Just out of the public’s view, in nearby Camp Creek, is an 80-acre elk feedground where the Wyoming Game and Fish Department feeds hay to about 2,000 elk during the winter. As a result of public inquiries, the WGFD eventually issued a news release “reporting higher than normal calf mortality at a few feedgrounds, most notably the Camp Creek feedground south of Jackson and the Soda Lake feedground north of Pinedale.” They attributed the death of approximately 80 elk at each feedground to “both disease issues and wolf predation.”

While there are wolves, coyotes and mountain lions in the area, the agents of death weren’t claw or fang, but bacteria. This bacteria thrives in fetid conditions and causes debilitation so painfully horrible that it is an act of mercy if a wolf administers the coup de grace.

The disease, commonly called hoof rot, is caused by Fusobacterium necrophorum which persists in unsanitary conditions on feedgrounds where elk are fed for months each winter amidst their own feces and urine. The disease particularly affects elk calves, whose hooves are soft, easily cut, and whose immune systems aren’t as robust as adults. The WGFD said that elk on feedgrounds “were exposed to many freeze/thaw cycles, which formed heavy crusting of snow and areas of sharp, jagged ice and mud. Such conditions can cause lesions to an animal’s hoof, or tissues between the toes, allowing bacteria to enter the animal’s system. From there, the bacteria can spread to vital organs, often overwhelming the liver, resulting in death.” The agency hints that the winter was unusual, but it really was little different than thousands of other winters that elk have spent in the Rocky Mountains. What is unusual are the unnatural circumstances that feedgrounds and hay inflict on the normally free-ranging elk, forcing them to wallow in their own waste for months; 100 tons or more of the stuff. Awful habitat for elk, perfect habitat for pathogens.

The unsanitary conditions that perpetuate the bacteria and results in hoof rot are typical on the 22 elk feedgrounds in western Wyoming, plus the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole. Wild, free-ranging elk are not commonly affected by this disease because those elk naturally spread out; the conditions on native winter range are far healthier than on a feedlot with decade’s worth of festering disease. But that’s how Wyoming “manages” more than 20,000 elk in Teton, Sublette and Lincoln counties. No other state does this to this degree. All other jurisdictions realize that to concentrate wildlife for 4 to 5 months each year is unhealthy in both the short and the long term.

Another insult shot at elk on feedgrounds each winter is in the form of an old cattle vaccine called Strain 19, brucellosis vaccine. Brucellosis can cause elk and cattle to abort fetuses. While the elk are lined up each day to munch hay, a person shoots a freeze-dried pellet containing a modified version of the brucellosis bacteria into the rumps of all the calf elk. The pellet penetrates the hide and is supposed to dissolve and eventually trigger antibodies to fight against the Brucella abortus bacteria. If the pellet hits between ribs or in the flank and gets into the body cavity or lungs, the elk can die. The feeder-shooter also shoots a paint ball at the elk, so they’re shot twice. The paint ball marks that animal as having been vaccinated.

The calf elk, with a very thin hide at this age, flinch each time they’re shot. Ironically, the vaccine is worthless. Analysis of the vaccination program, which has been in progress since 1985, concludes that the elk still have brucellosis in the same prevalence as without vaccinations. In fact, the disease has increased over this same time in adult female elk. But since the WGFD is heavily influenced by the cattle ranchers who are very supportive of vaccines, the wildlife managers continue to shoot every calf elk at least twice. The program costs at least $2,000 to $3,000 for each feedground each winter. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows the WGFD to vaccinate calf elk on the elk refuge each winter, too. The vaccination program costs up to $54,000 each winter, and over 30 years, that’s well over a million taxpayer dollars wasted. Elk not confined to feedgrounds each winter are typically much healthier than feedground elk.

The regular occurrence of hoof rot, brucellosis, pasteurella, scabies and other diseases associated with elk feedgrounds are good reasons to phase them out. Feedground conditions also increase the risk of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), another lethal disease of deer and elk that is advancing towards the elk feedgrounds. The CWD endemic zone expands about 1.8 million acres each year in Wyoming. Experts say that if CWD gets into the feedgrounds with their dense concentrations of elk it will accelerate the deadly epidemic among the elk and deer of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Camp Creek is a small picturesque valley facing south out of the Gros Ventre Mountains. On a sunny spring day last year, it was nearly impossible to reconcile that beauty with the scores of rotting carcasses, mostly calves. The sunshine was also cooking the tons of feces and urine that had been deposited by the elk over the past 5 months. Besides the grisly sight of dead and wasted elk in various stages of rot, the putrid smell was enough to label this a valley of death.

This is how Wyoming manages elk. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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About The Author

Lloyd Dorsey

Lloyd Dorsey is policy director for Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. He is a veteran conservationist. He previously worked for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

12 Responses to Camp Creek Elk Feedground 2014: A Valley of Death

  1. avatar Zoe Berger says:

    What a shameful horror. Is there an impact on a predator if it does eat an affected elk? At least they aren’t blaming wolves for this, entirely. What a sloppy, irresponsible mess. Are there any petitions to sign? Thank you for your informative yet distressing article.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Zoe Berger,

      Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and Western Watersheds Project are two organizations working to close the feedgrounds, but the Wyoming governor would rather have disease than change . . . another politician that would rather play make believe than face reality. See “Governor wants to intervene in Western Watersheds and elk feedgrounds lawsuit.” This is hilarious, or perhaps just irritating. Yes, he will defend the feedgrounds, but in doing so, not the elk that get sick on them.

      • avatar Zoe Berger says:

        Give me strength!! How can he so blatantly claim to be doing exactly what he is working to prevent from happening? I suppose it would be healthier (for me) to see it as hilarious. Irritating is closer. Pathetic also comes to mind too but I’ll stop here. Thanks Ralph.

  2. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Ugh. Why won’t they stop doing this? There’s too much risk now with the CWD. Do we even know how it affects other animals such as those who feed on ungulates?

  3. avatar Dawn Rehill says:

    I live right here where all of this is happening, a ticking time bomb ready to explode on all the feed grounds, who pays the price ? The elk and also they may blame the wolf, coyote, etc, u know the drill . But my Governor and others won’t let go of this so got to go practice, elk have moved on BUT at what price ?

  4. avatar Karen DeBraal says:

    Wyoming, pull your head out of your butt.

  5. avatar Gary Humbard says:

    The author does not state why WFG artificially feeds elk at these feedgrounds, however, I will presume they are to increase the survival of elk, thus providing better hunting opportunities and to keep elk away from ranchers haystacks and pastures(which are big businesses in Wyoming).

    A lot of the articles on this website are informative in describing a issue, but they rarely provide viable alternatives. Simply closing feedgrounds is not a viable alternative until some significant adverse effect (i.e.thousands of elk dying) occurs and to my knowledge that has not happened yet. Its akin to doing a strength exercise that produces pain so you figure out a different way to use that muscle.

    I’m not sure but would subsidizing the ranchers for fencing off their haystacks, improving elk habitat and feeding elk in additional areas instead of concentrating them in few areas be viable?

  6. avatar kathleen Riley says:

    Elk are big business because people pay good money to hunt them. In Alaska, you can spend upwards a 500 thousand dollars to be taken into remote areas and get that once in a lifetime trophy kill. It’s the same in the lower 48. And the vilifying of wolves is for 1. justifying hunting them, b/c people like to kill wolves for fun and 2. b/c we’re a nation of cattle welfare via allowing cattle operations to use wild lands for their personal gain and 3. b/c antlers on a wall are more desirable than animals living their lives out in nature. the thing to remember is that this seems normal to cattle people because this is how you raise cattle that aren’t out trampling public lands. you put them in fetid feed lots and vaccinate the hell out of them.

  7. avatar Dennis Morgan says:

    Wife and I have been to Jackson Hole three years in a row and we really enjoy the animals like Elk, Moose etc you can see while you are there. Jackson Hole is a cool small time but expensive to live there. I hate hearing the our own goverment is contributing to the death of elk instead of saving them I hope it gets changed soon.

    • avatar Linda Rolf says:

      The only way to get change is to demand it–especially from government agencies.

  8. avatar Maya Herrell says:

    Well, it seems common sense, if you are going to treat them like farm animals, someone better start shoveling shit and burning diseased carcasses. A bunch of imbeciles calling themsves WGFD should be fired and replaced. This is just pure uneducated idiots spending taxpayers money.

    Time for a government overhaul.

    OR, let it continue. Just a matter of time before it spreads to the cattle ranchers. CWD. Greedy bastards want it all.

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