Dangerous snow: Is foot rot taking hold at the National Elk Refuge?

Rot is caused by freeze-thaw cycles in unsanitary snow-

We just have to keep pointing out that persistant winter feeding of elk breeds disease. Now 23 elk have been put down for what is thought to be foot rot. No doubt more will die.

Foot rot suspected in elk deaths on refuge. By Cory Hatch. Jackson Hole Daily.






  1. Doryfun Avatar

    This story is further evidence of why people building trophy homes n the WUI zone is contributing to undermining the very values (diminished/vanished – winter range) of why they want to move to those areas in the first place. Why not just build homes closer to city and town suburbs and erect plastic deer and elk in their yards? Then real elk and deer would have a better chance at overcoming harsh winters. More intact winter grounds means less feeding, as a broad generalization, at least, and better animal distribution at critical times over all.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    You are right, but there needs to be an additional observation in the case of the elk in Jackson Hole. There has been an organized feeding program there for about 90 years.

    People love to see the elk. I remember the excitement of seeing the elk when I was perhaps just 5 or 6 years old.

    However, disease is finally catching up. with the real danger the likely entry soon of chronic wasting disease.

  3. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    I think it woulld be prudent to investigate other contributing factors in the development of foot rot. The elk in Jackson may need other food sources than just alfalfa hay. They eat the willows and other shrubs to the ground and may be seeking vitamins or minerals they don’t get from hay pellets.

  4. Doryfun Avatar

    While it has been long recognized that winter feeding increases the risk for disease, and simultaneously knowing that development has reduced available habitat to thereby justify such feeding, the need now is to reduce and phase out winter feeding. Of course, this also means augmenting this elimination with herd reduction numbers, to help balance out the consequent loss in carrying capacity. However, rather than resorting to increasing the blood bath (culling/killing) how about starting an I & E campaign to reduce the number of people who buy/sell private areas for trophy homes and other development projects. Perhaps RMEF could look into putting more effort into buying these kinds of places, rather than worrying so much about the big bad wolf?

    More effort should be made for education to the public and helping direct conservation organizations to put money into these kinds of projects as a start. Also, anyone who chooses to develop and live in the WUI zone should do so at their own risk. When it comes to fire protection, they should not be bailed out for such, by taxpayers. Or maybe people who move to the WUI zone should pay more in taxes, to help pay for the wildlife they displace – for what it costs to try and find replacement areas to buy for them, if and when any such places become available. Kind of like carbon credits???

    1. Salle Avatar

      The people who build trophy homes there don’t pay taxes in the first place, think they’re going to start any time soon? They’ll just cop to the Boehner -head quip – “It’s not up to me to…” and then start crying. In their rationale, it’s something that the serfs have to pay for, in every way imaginable. As it is, people who actually WORK in Jackson can’t afford to LIVE there.

  5. WM Avatar


    ++ Perhaps RMEF could look into putting more effort into buying these kinds of places, rather than worrying so much about the big bad wolf?++

    RMEF does not have the resources to make such purchases.

    Another thing to consider is that many of the elk here migrate out of Yellowstone/Teton National Parks, and simply have no winter habitat due to the expansion of the town of Jackson, and all the ranches, farms and trophy homes on what was once a low elevation relatively snow free winter range. The herds here once numbered over 25,000, and are now down to less than a third. This is a US taxpayer problem and general state (WY) land use problem. But the development and tax incentives are there for local and state government to prefer human sprawl across the landscape, even if it results in ever decreasing winter range. This is a problem not unique to the area around Jackson – but it does involve the largest elk herds in the world.

    1. Salle Avatar

      Can’t have it both ways. I think RMEF should put their money where their big mouth is… If they aren’t willing to address this situation, they risk losing a lot of credibility.

      1. WM Avatar


        This is not all that different from the bison migration out of Yellowstone, and not being welcome in their natural wintering habitat. It would take hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase the needed lands there, or here for the elk, at market prices. These were unfortunate oversights when the national parks were created – no winter range, and maybe no reasonable belief that these valleys would be filled with man made activities of such a level to impede migration. To correct it now it would take a huge infusion of money. RMEF does not now, nor will it ever have that kind of money. Now Sierra Club might be a better candidate if one looks for organizations with money or clout to make it happen. I am going to bet its not a priority for them.

  6. Jon Way Avatar

    Well put WM: “These were unfortunate oversights when the national parks were created – no winter range, and maybe no reasonable belief that these valleys would be filled with man made activities of such a level to impede migration.”

    Man, if we could only go back 100+ years and have Paradise Valley down into Yellowstone being part of Yellowstone and the same with Jackson area being part of Grand Teton. At least I can dream…

    1. Ovis Avatar

      Grand Teton National Park was made as large as it could possibly be, politically speaking, and the National Elk Refuge was created with full local support. It doesn’t need to be larger, nor does the Park for purposes of winter range.

      Trophy homes have not crowded out the elk either, not here. Some way the elk need to have their winter feeding eliminated, at least slowly. This herd is going to get CWD and that will be the end of it and all the creatures that depend on elk.

      1. WM Avatar


        What is your conclusion then, as to why the largest elkk herd in the world has trimmed from 25,000 down to about 7,500, then, or that these elk need a risky winter feeding program, putting them in higher density subject to greater disease potential and transmission?

      2. Ovis Avatar


        Hmmmm. Are you confusing the Northern Range Yellowstone elk herd with the Jackson Hole Elk herd?

        The Jackson Hole herd isn’t down. The number that are on the Refuge is different each year. Winter snow level is the major reason. Even in tough years quite a few elk “winter out.” That means they live away from the Refuge. There are also three state of Wyoming feeding areas up the Gros Ventre River.

        You are right. The feeding program is risky, but they have been doing it for a long, long time (Google to find out). The Chamber of Commerce, most local people, and others love to see those elk.

      3. WM Avatar


        My time reference for the larger number was before the feeding program ever started. It was my understanding as many as 25,000 migrated out on to the lowlands where pickings were much easier well over a century ago. What we have now are variations from a baseline that was much after there were unfettered numbers migrating across an uncluttered landscape of human activity.

        I have been to the Refuge a few times over the years. But, I was involved in feeding programs in another state. And, as Petticoat describes below in some detail, feeding areas are anything but sanitary, but the people love to see them anyway.

      4. Ovis Avatar


        Well OK. I don’t have any idea how many elk were around in about 1910 in the Jackson Hole area.

        I agree with Petticoat too. The snow on the Refuge is really pretty disgusting if you think about it. I’m surprised there isn’t even more disease than we see.

  7. Jerry Black Avatar
    Jerry Black

    Robert H.
    If you’re monitoring this……..miss your insightful comments. You have more knowledge of what’s going on here than anyone, although I think I understand your reluctance to comment on this blog.
    Willing to give us just one update???

  8. Doryfun Avatar

    While I have been been to Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, way back when, I really don’t know that much about all the local politics and other pertinent things that go on there. In my post, I was really making a broad generalization over what happens typically in the west. (At least for OR & ID where I am most familiar to) I guess until we get some kind of grip politically/relgiously/whatever on our influencing our own numbers, we can’t expect situations for wildlife to get that much better.
    Like I said earlier, whenever, if ever, potential winter habitats become available, then conservation organizations that have the ability to put money towards buying such, would be a good way to go. The reason we need to reclaim winter grounds, where possible, is that it probably will never be very likely to convince people not to build their homes closer to Bambi. And as long as human numbers go up, then we adapt and live with less wildlife numbers. Cry in our beers and such.

  9. petticoat rebellion Avatar
    petticoat rebellion

    I’ve seen the feedgrounds on the NER in winter. It’s a danged hot mess! The alfalfa pellets are broadcast all over the ground. Elk congregate in the path of the feed truck as the food is dispensed. Food gets trampled and mucky. The elk urinate and defecate in the feed. Whatever is not consumed is left on the ground to rot with along with the urine and feces. The elk end up walking around in rotting food, muck, and feces while ingesting the food pellets. This is a disastrous recipe for an infectious disease outbreak! More shocking that the refuge has known about this foot rot disease for at least 7-8 years, yet they fail to address it through changes in management. Imagine the stammering explanations and scapegoating from the refuge managers when CWD hits this elk herd…

  10. dawgschmidt Avatar

    Hello All –

    For those of you in Jackson Hole, I encourage you to come and watch the documentary I just finished completed about the elk feed ground conundrum called Feeding the Problem. It is premiering at the National Museum of Wildlife Art this Friday, February 25th at 6pm. A panel discussion will follow with folks from the conservation community as well as folks from the ranching/outfitting industry.

    For more information check out http://www.feedingtheproblem.org.

    Thanks and I hope to see you all there!

    Danny Schmidt
    Feeding the Problem

    1. WM Avatar

      Good for you, Danny! Will there be any other distribution of your work, and maybe a filming of the panel discussion?

  11. dawgschmidt Avatar

    Hi WM,

    The film should air on MontanaPBS sometime this spring and hopefully on WyomingPBS in the future. I will also distribute the 30min film for free online at feedingtheproblem.org, and elsewhere. I hope through a large scale web distribution we can get as many people as possible to see the film and start a dialogue to phase out the feed grounds.

    I hadn’t intended to film the panel discussion but I will look into it. Thank you for the interest and if there is a place I can send a DVD to be reviewed for this website I will happily do so.

    Warm Regards,

    Danny Schmidt

  12. Doryfun Avatar


    Super. Wish I could attend. Will check it out online when it becomes available. thanks. We yse telescopes to see far off worlds, and microsocpes to see far smaller ones. Perhaps someday someone will invent a soulascope to allow us to see far into our souls. Perhaps we could find a better way to align our own souls (if you believe in such) with that of the critters we humnans have the love/hate relationships with??

  13. Dawn Rehill Avatar
    Dawn Rehill

    I heard your interview on KHOL here in Jackson, gonna try to make the film . You hit it right , we have a problem ready to exploded , Granted when I drive by the refugee , to see all those elk , beautiful animals, even a girl from Brooklyn knows this is not gonna work . I have lived here for 11 yrs now and this subject keeps coming up which I am happy about cause we do need to faze it out . Looking forward to the film and thanks again for your imput on KHOL .


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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