Close Elk Feedgrounds Before It's Too Late



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  1. Buffaloed Avatar

    Hey! Bob Wharrf are you listening?

  2. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    This was a bit of a scattershot piece but it brings up an important point–on whose watch will the epidemic occur? Who will take the hit for this negligence? It’ll be the governor, G&F, and the livestock industry. the first two having capitulated to the latter’s illegitmate demands for control of the range and migratory elk.

    Unfortunately, there is little hope that we’ll be able to get the feedgrounds closed before CWD arrives, and so although we’re trying to get them closed, what we’re faced with in truth is what to do in a post-epidemic world. It’s a tragedy.

  3. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    I don’t know if this is such a bad thing. This is like global warming: it will take the sea level to come up 2 feet in New York City before people will take it seriously.

    Why not let CWD run though the elk population and take down the inflated elk numbers in the first place? This is a testable experiment, so why not do it? If we see the feedlots as really contributing to the disease then this case can always be referred back to as real data on why these kind of feed lots are a bad idea. CWD is not like the flu: it will slowly simmer under normal conditions and only boil under high transmission rates. If this test proves that feeding lots are the boiling point, then those arguing against them in the future have real ammunition.

    This is not that different from Colorado stocking WD infected fish and watching the parasite levels explode in the streams. Because they did this, we can always stop the stocking of WD infected fish in other state waters by referring back to the Colorado disaster. And that is not a bad argument to be able to make.

  4. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    CWD is the ultimate catastrophe. It does not disappear after reducing the population. The infectious agent remains in the soil permanently.

    Recent studies have shown that interaction with soil makes the infectious misfolded proteins (prions) even more infectious.

  5. Catbestland Avatar
    Catbestland seems like a progressive little publication. I haven’t seen it before. I was reading the bios of the members and was impressed to see that some of the wildlife biologists also have their law degrees. I am seeing this more and more and think this is a smart move.

  6. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    It’s on my blogroll. I hope folks will check out these links from time to time.

  7. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    Ralph, I know a little about the disease and its mode of transmission. But I would hardly call it an ultimate catastrophe. A virus, for example, that was highly lethal with a high transmission would be much worse than a prion disease. While the prion protein may remain in the soil as an infectious agent (much like anthrax spores) the disease is spread by saliva/blood contact between elk and deer.

    But what the hell, if you really want to get someone’s attention with this disease, you need to get a lot of infected animals shot and eaten, and then have a human come down with a verifiable case of “mad elk” disease. I have often wondered if there are coyotes or wolves or cougars out there with such a disease in that they eat EVERYTHING from a downed animal including the brain and lymphatic tissues which have the highest concentration of prions.

  8. Nathan Hobbs Avatar

    How do you close the Elk feedground? it was my understanding that the Elk migrated to the area where the feed grounds are and we put up the fence because we built homes and roads all over the normal winter foraging ranges.
    Wouldnt it be a bit like curing a drug addict to prevent the animals from returning each winter looking for a free meal?

  9. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Each feedground has a different history, and I’d bet that Robert Hoskins can tell us if he has the time, but some were created more or less as you suggested, but others basically baited the elk to come and stay in the feedground.

    At one time the Jackson Hole herd did not winter in Jackson Hole. I understand they migrated out into the Upper Green and southward where all the gas wells are, although the time when they stopped doing this was many decades ago.

    You probably can’t close them immediately in most cases, but I think those in the Gros Ventre River could be.

  10. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    I’m in the middle of a big deadline–comments on the Bridger-Teton NF feedground EIS are due at midnight tonight–but I need to respond quickly to Dr. Weis above. I’ll try to answer other questions later.

    I’m not interested in testing a hypothesis about CWD on the feedgrounds, or using CWD as an elk density “depressant.” The elk feedgrounds do not constitute clinical laboratories for the dispassionate long-term investigation of wildlife disease, particularly a fatal disease such as CWD. We are talking about elk and deer herds that have values well beyond what might be established through “scientific experiment,” and those wider values would be greatly harmed by a CWD epidemic on the feedgrounnds.

    I agree with Ralph’s characterization of an epidemic on the feedgrounds as a catastrophe–it would be a catastrophe for elk and deer herds as well as for wildlife conservation. We have a political situation where elk are deliberately sustained, as a subsidy to the livestock industry and local ranchers, at unnaturally high densities on the feedgrounds under which CWD would not only infect and therefore kill up to half the animals on those feedgrounds in density dependent conditions, but also infect the soil of the feedgrounds for long-term infectiousness, a density independent situation. A disease that is both density dependent and independant is not one I want around, period, regardless of what we could learn about the disease scientifically as it rages through feedground elk between Pinedale and Jackson Hole.

    We do not know enough about the disease itself to make absolute pronouncements about its pathological aspects (e.g. will CWD evolve into vCJD, as BSE did), but we do know something of its epidemiology, particularly how it tends to move more quickly through mule deer than elk, and this brings up what we already know about mule deer migratory pathways into the feedground areas from the west and south in Wyoming. There are multiple, heavily used mule and whitetail deer pathways and they intersect the feedgrounds. I myself live on such a pathway complex, here in the Upper Wind River Valley just to the east of the Continental Divide, and we already know CWD is present in deer on the eastern reaches of that pathway complex (eastern boundary of the Wind River Indian Reservation). I could have deer walking past my cabin right now which is half a mile from the Wind River, with CWD, making contacts with other deer that will run CWD right into the Gros Ventre feedgrounds and the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole.

    Our only hope to prevent a CWD epidemic–we cannot prevent it from getting into elk and mule deer herds–is to close the feedgrounds and get elk onto existing winter ranges, which are now dedicated to cattle to signifincatly lower their densities to that of completely free-ranging elk.

    I’m not sure under which conditions you would consider a CWD epidemic to not be a catastrophe, but for wildlife and elk conservation and management it most certainly would be a catastrophe.


  11. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    You put forth very sound and appropriate concerns to counter my “devils advocate” rhetoric. I agree with everything you say, but still wonder what it takes, sometimes, to get people to see just how destructive their practices can be. Does it take a decimated elk population to get the free grazing off of critical deer and elk habitat? Does it take that to make the wildlife experts to get the numbers of deer and elk back to reasonable levels instead of their theoretical maximum? Or to close these feed lots? I don’t know but I don’t see CWD as raising much a red flag for now, just as WD did not raise a red flag for a number of years.

  12. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins


    Feedground comments are to bed, and before I get to bed, I want to say that earlier I took your point about the devil’s advocate approach, but I had to put things in what I think is the proper context.

    I myself have been amazed at the obtuseness of the livestock industry and the willful negligence of the WGFD regarding feedgrounds and their role in actively fostering disease. Brucellosis has proven to be a redherring, and even though Wyoming lost its brucellosis free status from 2004 to 2006 as a consequence of cattle getting into continuous contact with hot feedground elk, due to landowner and G&F negligence, ranchers are still more concerned for their AUMs on public land than about the fact that as long as we have feedgrounds, we’ll have brucellosis in elk. Ranchers don’t care as long as they have command of the grass.

    CWD raised its ugly head re: feedgrounds when CWD jumped the continental divide in Colorado in 2003 and descended into the Green River Basin, giving it a straight shot along migratory pathways north into the Upper Green in Wyoming, where most of the feedgrounds are located. At the same time we’ve seen new cases of CWD in elk and deer further north and west in Wyoming each year. Every year, CWD keeps creeping toward the feedgrounds. Despite this, G&F absolutely refuses to consider closing the feedgrounds, and won’t close them even when CWD is found on the feedgrounds, because the ranchers won’t let them. In my view, that is willful negligence of the public trust in wildlife.

    Elk on the feedgrounds aren’t being managed primarily to reach theoretical maximum; the elevated numbers that we do have are more an ancillary effect of feeding; winter mortality is very low on the feedgrounds. The primary purpose of feedgrounds is control and obstruction of elk migration. I think that if we did in fact spread elk across the available winter range now reserved to cattle, that we could probably comfortably sustain the numbers that we have now and also see brucellosis significantly reduced, and if we didn’t have cattle at all, we could have many more elk than we do now without breaching carrying capacity–such as it is and such as we can establish what it is. I’m not one of those who thinks carrying capacity is a number, but an empirical reflection of the quality of the habitat.

    It is not clear to me that a CWD epidemic will get peoples’ attention here in Wyoming unless there is immediate national or international attention that affects pocketbooks, particularly of the livestock industry. The (false) perception that CWD in elk is the same as BSE in cattle, once entrenched in public consciousness, would be hard to counter. And who knows; maybe CWD will infect cattle. CWD has, apparently, already crossed one species barrier, from domestic sheep as scrapies to deer. Hasn’t it been shown that injecting CWD prions into the brains of cattle causes TSE symptoms? What would it take for CWD prions to do that under field conditions? I’d like to know. So would the few people in this state who think about such things. One doesn’t need to be a MD or a PhD to think about such things; I’m certainly not either. But I know enough to ask questions and be very unhappy with the answers I’m getting.



Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan