Save the elk: Shut feedlots, add wolves

By Erik Molvar

Rocky Mountain elk are one of the stars of the show at Yellowstone National Park, a world-famous destination for wildlife viewing. Elk are a defining species for the natural and human communities surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Summer tourism is the primary engine of local economies, and the prospect of seeing elk — along with wolves, grizzly bears, moose and other charismatic wildlife seldom seen elsewhere — is what draws more than 3 million visitors to the region each summer. The antler arches in the Jackson Town Square and the bronze elk sculpture at the National Museum of Wildlife Art symbolize Jackson’s close affinity with this magnificent animal.

But now the elk of Yellowstone face the approach of chronic wasting disease, a fatal prion-based brain disease, much like mad cow disease, that targets members of the deer family. In this context the state of Wyoming’s politically driven and dysfunctional wildlife policies — state feedgrounds that concentrate elk at unnatural densities, combined with major reductions planned for wolf populations — are a recipe for disaster.

Historical accounts record elk migrations in the tens of thousands, following a migration corridor that took them past Pinedale and down the base of the Wind River Range to winter in the Red Desert. By the turn of the 20th century ranch development in surrounding valleys and overharvest of elk outside Yellowstone and Jackson Hole had eliminated these migrations to ancestral winter ranges. As a result, thousands of elk wintered in Jackson Hole. This human-caused disruption of the ecosystem resulted in the establishment of the National Elk Refuge.

The 22 state-run elk feedgrounds scattered around the periphery of Jackson Hole were established to benefit ranchers, not elk. The idea is to lure elk away from private ranches where ranchers raised and stored hay for cows and horses. When elk get into stored hay, ranchers call it “depredation,” but what it really amounts to is a native wildlife species adapting to a new food source and stopping short instead of migrating to the native bunchgrasses on their traditional winter ranges.

We’d like to see the elk return to their original winter ranges, dispersing themselves across the landscape. Thus, as chronic wasting disease penetrates the Yellowstone ecosystem, its spread would be slowed, and predators would have a chance to pick off infected animals and head off a major epidemic.

That’s where wolves come in. Wolves prey first on the weak and diseased, cutting the sickness out of the herd. Robust populations of wolves — nature’s tool for disease containment — are the best hope for minimizing chronic wasting disease once it hits the elk, deer and moose populations. Unfortunately the state of Wyoming’s ecologically unsound wolf management plan will result in a major reduction in wolf populations, just when the elk need them most. We need more wolves, not fewer.

And with the dwindling of private ranches in the Gros Ventre valley and the vacant and retired livestock allotments on surrounding national forest lands, conditions are rapidly improving, offering the potential to restore the much longer ancestral elk migrations.

For years hunter and conservation advocate Lloyd Dorsey has been warning about this impending disaster as chronic wasting disease approaches the Yellowstone ecosystem. There is no immune response and no known cure for this sickness. Now the deadly brain disease is at our doorstep, having reached Pinedale and Star Valley. Dorsey has been right all along, but thanks to political pressure from the ranching industry, Wyoming Game and Fish officials and Forest Service managers have ignored the need to act.

It’s not too late to seize the opportunity to prevent a die-off of elk that could spread across the entire Yellowstone ecosystem. It is time to shut down the feedgrounds so the elk remain dispersed and allow a natural increase in the wolf population to eliminate sick animals before they transmit wasting disease to others. The elk of Yellowstone deserve a fighting chance.

– – –
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and serves as executive director for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group working to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife. WWP is currently challenging the legality of the Alkali state elk feedground.



  1. Terry Singeltary Avatar

    thought everyone would like/should watch this…kind regards, terry




    Thursday, June 29, 2017


    Terry S. Singeltary Sr.

  2. Bob Aegerter Avatar
    Bob Aegerter

    Read “Where Elk Roam, Conservation and Biopolitics of our National Elk Herd,” by Bruce L Smith, PhD, 2012, Lyons Press (Globe Pequot Press.) This is not a new problem and it must be solved.

  3. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Sarcasm alert. The Agenda 21 cabal will take issue with this…it’s all a conspiracy o drive us into vacant shopping malls…

    Elk and deer have been managed like livestock for too long.
    A series of short annual hunting seasons do not cull what needs culling, quite the opposite. If a hunter has a chance, he/she isn’t going to shoot that scrawny, drooling, walking in circles animal…I want something big that ripples with meat.

    That said, wolves do not Cull just the sick and weak, they’ll take what they can get. Yet, it is all about food for them, and though many hunters are jealous thatbwolves can hunt 24/7 year round, it’s that year round hunting that is beneficial, and data bears out the preponderance of what wolves and other predators take (that includes the young/new born).

    I don’t have a dog in the rancher/elk discussion, but I’d surmise that many ranchers, though they enjoy elk burgers, etc, would be profoundly happy if elk never crossed their pasture land, especially with the newer evidence that it’s elk spreading brucellosis, not bison. In the long run, fewer elk/deer equals fewer wolves… perhaps fewer happy and unhappy people…

  4. HoofHugs Avatar

    The modern horse’s ancestors going back 55 million years have been found in several Wyoming areas. These horse ancestors go back to the time when Wyoming was much closer to the Equator and the continent was much like parts of Yellowstone are not. It is during this time when plants that eventually formed Wyoming’s great wealth in coal were formed. The modern horse appeared from earlier horse ancestors 1.7 Mybp. It would be helpful for native horses to have predators as well.

  5. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    Thanks, Erik, for a very informative essay on an important problem and the proper remedy for it. I’d like to believe that WG&F will come to its senses on this soon, but they are the servants of the many elk hunting industries (outfitters, guides, weapons manufacturers, taxidermists, etc.) who will not be convinced easily.

  6. Patrick Avatar

    So many problems with elk CWD and feedlots: tough to remove them from the environment because prions are very stable proteins, it is transmissible to deer, and it is possible that elk CWD could cross other species barriers if it gets concentrated in the environment. They should do extensive surveillance of the feedlots, public and private. If they find it, they better close them down. The article doesn’t indicate that it’s been found at the state feedgrounds, nor that they test for CWD in the elk that congregate there. An update that addresses these questions would be helpful.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Press Release