Do Elk Feedgrounds Violate Public Trust?

Do Elk Feedgrounds Violate Public Trust? By Deb Donahue.*

This is a fine legal analysis of Wyoming’s elk feedlots.

” Litigation is generally an ineffective way to manage wildlife. But litigation over the feedgrounds seems inevitable, and it may be the only way to ensure that western Wyoming’s wildlife get a fair shake.”

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*Deb Donahue is a lawyer and a wildlife biologist. A member of the University of Wyoming College of Law faculty since 1992, she teaches Environmental Law, Public Lands, Indian Law, and Native American Natural Resources Law. She spent 2002 on sabbatical in New Zealand, studying biodiversity conservation policy. Donahue served as executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council in 1983-85. She has worked for federal land management agencies, the mining industry, law firms, a federal judge, and conservation organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation in Alaska. She is author of The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity (1999). In 2000 she was honored as the Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s Natural Resources Conservationist of the Year. In 2000 she was honored as the Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s Natural Resources Conservationist of the Year.






  1. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    This is a most succinct and accurate assessment of the legal status of Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds, and it is the first time we’ve gotten a legal assessment of the feedgrounds as a problem of the public trust. Ultimately, legal challenges to the feedgrounds will depend upon making a public trust case in state courts to shut down the feedgrounds for good. That argument is that the State of Wyoming, by operating the feedgrounds as a subsidy to the livestock industry, a private interest, is engaging in serious negligence of its sovereign public trust duties to conserve and manage wildlife for the citizens of the state. Specifically, the State of Wyoming is operating a disease hazard for wildlife for the political and economic benefit of the livestock industry.

    In other words, pressure is increasing.

  2. Catbestland Avatar

    This article really breaks it down so that the reader can understand the politics of the unhealthy situation. Brava for Deb. I bet she’s not on the cattlemens’ favorite people list.

    Can’t they look at Colorado as an expample and understand that if this situation is not addressed, the disease WILL spread. They have to stop looking at it as a possibility. When it does spread, I’m sure they will find some way to blame wolves or bison or pronghorn or bighorn or some other creature that poses a threat to livestock industry profits.

  3. Linda Hunter Avatar

    It is really nice to read something that has been well researched like this. I learned quite a bit from this article. Thanks Ralph.

  4. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    Professor Donahue of the University of Wyoming School of Law is also the author of The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Protect Native Biodiversity (1999, Un. of Oklahoma Press). The book was, to put it lightly, controversial.

    When this book was published, a bill was almost immediately introduced in the Wyoming Legislature to abolish the School of Law for its failure to control and censor Donahue’s work. At the same time, UW President Phil Dubois sent around an email to the various college deans asking for volunteers to challenge Donahue’s scholarship and conclusions in public.

    Had Donahue not already had tenure, she no doubt would have been fired. Indeed, the only public support she received within the University was from her own dean.

    The bill to abolish the Law School failed, and only a few of her colleagues, mostly from the Ag College, took up the mantle thrown down by Dubois to attack Donahue’s work.

    For those who are interested in grazing issues, The Western Range Revisited is THE book to study. Donahue ties together all the threads–cultural, political, economic, legal, and scientific–to make a powerful and irrefutable argument for eliminating public lands grazing.

  5. Catbestland Avatar

    Where can this book be purchased?

  6. Monty Avatar

    It is interesting to note that the “red necks” who are the first to “wave the American flag” and “God bless America” and “support our troops” are the first to condem “free speech”, in this country, if it doesn’t conform to their ideology.

  7. Don Riley Avatar
    Don Riley





  8. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    Deb’s book is available from the University of Oklahoma Press or through at

    The bill to abolish the law school and the “debate” was quite interesting. Those in favor, ranchers of course, complained about the university “biting the hand that feeds it,” as if agriculture has the economic clout to match its political clout. In fact, as was reported widely about a decade ago, the University now gets more than half its budget from private foundation and corporate grants for various proprietary research; if I remember correctly, the biggest money maker for UW was chemical engineering.

    Ag is way down the economic list in Wyoming. But it’s still holding on to its oligarchical political power, to the detriment of the state’s wildlife and body politic.

  9. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins


    If we can find a conservation group willing to take it on in court, we can argue that the disease hazard from feeding elk on the NER violates the biodiversity oriented laws under which the national wildlife refuge system operates (chiefly, the Improvement Act of 1997). There is no feeding in Grand Teton NP.

    If you recall, when the NER refused to allow Wyoming to vaccinate elk with Strain 19 on the Refuge, the State sued in Federal District court to gain access to the Refuge, but lost both in the District and 10th Circuit Courts. Unfortunately, as soon as the Bush administration came into office in 2001, the feds “settled” the lawsuit they had won outright and allowed Wyoming to begin vaccinating elk on the Refuge, a practice that interferes with the Refuge’s ability to spread elk out across the Refuge and other winter ranges in Jackson Hole to lessen the risk of disease transmission. So vaccination actually contributes to disease transmission on the Refuge (and the State feedgrounds as well).

    Donahue, in her column, makes a strong, irrefutable case for taking on feedgrounds that operate on USFS/BLM lands with federal statutes and case law. The point I was making about bringing state law to bear is that the public trust involves and engages a STATE’s sovereign duty for wildlife conservation and management in the public interest, not the federal government’s duty. I doubt we could use federal law to eliminate feedgrounds on state-owned or private land; I wouldn’t want to try to argue for closure based on federal law. We will have to use state law to that end, and in my view the public trust is the best legal weapon at the state level.

    I think that any legal strategy against feedgrounds will have to work both the federal and state courts.

    Thanks for the question.


  10. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    For those who did not see this when last posted:

  11. Buffaloed Avatar


    Maybe GYC might file a lawsuit! Did anybody ask them to do it? I’m sure they would since they are a conservation organization. 😉

  12. Catbestland Avatar

    Thanks Robert,
    I ordered the book. I was appalled to read one of the comments in favor of the book that explained about the woman who had contracted Flesh Eating Bacteria from a “Hormone injected dead cow” found rotting upstream from where she had been wading. Doesn’t this pose a threat to humans and wildlife alike? Cows die and rot in our streams all the time. They are rarely discovered. Why isn’t this against the law?????

  13. JB Avatar

    Monty said:
    “It is interesting to note that the “red necks” who are the first to “wave the American flag” and “God bless America” and “support our troops” are the first to condem “free speech”, in this country, if it doesn’t conform to their ideology.”

    Though I don’t care for the term “red necks,” your point is well made. In general, people show a remarkable ability to adapt their ideological views when it suits their immediate self interest. It appears the “red necks” in Wyoming are no different.

  14. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    Hey folks–it wasn’t rednecks involved in the attempted censorship of Deb Donahue for writing The Western Range Revisited; it was members of the Wyoming State Senate, well-off ranchers, the President of the University of Wyoming, and a few bootlicking PhDs out of the Ag College.

  15. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    For those interested, the article by Sigurdson referred to in this article is a new (March, 2008) review of CWD. It is a very good and lucid review. You can get it as a PDF if you go to NCBI, pub med, and put in her name. If you have any problems email me and I’ll send you a copy.

    One comment she made really caught my attention. Deer, elk and certainly moose are more solitary than community oriented. But caribou, now that is a different story. IF CWD moves into the caribou population, then a real epidemic could ensue due to their propensity to crowd into huge herds. If caribou populations are hit hard by CWD, then that would fit my definition of catastrophic for the entire ecosystem.

  16. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    I agree; the Sigurdson review is a good one and up to date.

    To my knowledge, no one has studied whether caribou are susceptible to CWD in the same way that elk or deer are. Like moose, caribou have weird physiologies from their special adaptations to boreal forest and arctic tundra environments. We have found CWD in moose in the field–one example, in Colorado, if I remember correctly. I don’t know of any instance of CWD being found in caribou.

    Having spent a lot of time around elk, deer, and moose, I would agree that moose are solitary, but I wouldn’t go so far as to apply the term to elk and deer. On any given day, I can go up to the East Fork winter range and see 1000 elk at a time. They are herding animals, moreso than deer. However, I have several bands of whitetail and mule deer around my place here on Dry Creek; they come and go as bands.

    Interestingly, deer are more susceptible to CWD than elk, even though elk can tolerate higher densities.

    The issue with density dependence and CWD is that the elk feedgrounds increase the densities of elk to levels that are abnormal across space and time. Otherwise, in free-ranging elk and deer, to the degree that current surveillance is accurate, we know the prevalence of CWD is relatively low. That’s not the case with elk ranches and farms, and we know that densities on the feedgrounds are higher on the feedgrounds than on the ranches/farms.

    The feedgrounds are elk ghettos, no doubt about it. That’s the threat.

    During my wolf study in the Yukon I got to opportunity to learn a little about caribou. They do exhibit fairly high densities, especially in ANWR with the Porcupine Herd; ANWR is the calving ground–one reason protecting ANWR from drilling is so important.

    If caribou are as equally susceptible to CWD as deer and elk, it would be a disaster for them–not that industrial development in the North isn’t already enough of a disaster for caribou and other wildlife. Industrial development is creeping further and further into their critical habitats, especially winter and calving ranges. Unfortunately, wolves and not industry get blamed for caribou problems.

    I would expect that CWD would get into caribou herds through infected mule deer out of Alberta and Saskatchewan; both provinces have CWD problems, where CWD got out of game farms into wild populations. Mule deer have been moving their range northwards for some time; when I was in the Yukon a decade ago, wolves were already hunting mule deer in the Alaska Highway corridor in the southern Yukon. I can remember the first time I went up North and saw mule deer on the AK HWY in northern BC and wondering, what the hell are they doing here?


  17. JB Avatar

    Robert said: “Hey folks–it wasn’t rednecks involved in the attempted censorship of Deb Donahue for writing The Western Range Revisited; it was members of the Wyoming State Senate, well-off ranchers, the President of the University of Wyoming, and a few bootlicking PhDs out of the Ag College.”

    Robert: As I said, I don’t really care for the term “red necks,” but if it’s going to be used, I don’t think members of the WY Senate, ranchers, or any PhDs should be excluded from this categorization.


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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