Wyoming judge blocks approval for Alkali Creek elk feedground near Jackson Hole

For Immediate Release
September 17, 2018

Contact:
Jonathan Ratner, Western Watersheds Project, (877) 746-3628
Lloyd Dorsey, Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, (307) 690-1967
Melissa Thomasma, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, (307) 690-2673
Glenn Hockett, Gallatin Wildlife Association, (406) 586-1729

Ruling cites disease danger and need to consider phasing out feedgrounds

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Last Friday, September 14th, a Wyoming federal court issued a ruling invalidating long-term approval for a state-run elk feedground on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in the Gros Ventre River valley, east of Jackson Hole. With the deadly and highly contagious chronic wasting disease (CWD) already within the Yellowstone ecosystem, conservation groups had challenged approval of the Alkali Creek Elk Feedground, which concentrates herds of elk in unhealthy conditions for the winter months.

“We appreciate that this decision benefits the herds of magnificent elk and those residents and visitors who value them, by offering an opportunity to consider a healthier paradigm for elk management,” noted Melissa Thomasma, Executive Director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. “There are 23 elk feedgrounds that surround the fringes of the Yellowstone ecosystem, and each and every one is a disease amplifier waiting for an infected animal to wander through. There are very few avenues to mitigate CWD, but there are two obvious paths forward: close feedgrounds, and allow predators to fulfill their ecological role.”

The conservationists’ case was supported by scientists, businesses, hunters, and wildlife enthusiasts with an interest in maintaining abundant, healthy elk throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

According to Lloyd Dorsey, Conservation Program Manager for Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, “These iconic elk herds are a crown jewel of the world’s first National Park, and a defining feature that makes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem what it is today.  Healthy wild ecosystems in this region are the cornerstone of a vibrant regional economy that we can’t afford to put at risk by knowingly causing elk to get sick at feedgrounds. Wild elk are healthier elk.”

“These feedlots are powderkegs for disease transmission, and with the expansion of chronic wasting disease into the Yellowstone region, the fuse is lit,” said Jonathan Ratner, Wyoming Director for Western Watersheds Project. “We should allow the elk to reoccupy their natural winter ranges.”

The court ruled that the Forest Service had failed to examine a range of reasonable alternatives when it refused to consider phasing out elk feedgrounds. “Important to the issues raised in this case, the Service eliminated an alternative to improve winter range on the BTNF and eliminate all elk feeding in an effort to restore historical migration routes,” Judge Freudenthal wrote in her ruling.

The court recognized that the Forest Service’s own evaluation of impacts indicated a serious risk of the Alkali Feedground contributing to disease problems. According to the ruling, “There is no question that Alkali Creek Feedground could become a reservoir for CWD infection if it becomes established in elk populations in northwest Wyoming. That potential is increased with the concentration of elk at feedgrounds.”

The judge also ruled that the Forest Service failed to examine the cumulative impacts of other elk feedgrounds on the overall picture of disease transmission and the health of the elk herds, including how an elk feedground in the Alkali Creek area “would interrelate with, potentially support, or potentially undermine the objectives of the combined work under the 2007 [Bison and Elk Management Plan].”  “The goal of the 2007 BEMP,” the decision described in a footnote, “is for a progressively managed phase out of artificial feeding and transition to natural forage in the Refuge over a fifteen year period [ending 2022].”

The judge stated that the Forest Service cannot be excused “from taking a hard look at the consequences of its action to allow the long-term use of NFS lands at Alkali Creek as a feedground. Relevant to the [Forest] Service [and not simply within WGFD jurisdiction] are the problems that artificial feeding increases the risk of disease transmission, increases the risk that the site will be contaminated with prions for a very long time, and also appears to blindly support WGFD’s goal of managing elk movements to prevent commingling with livestock and danger to agricultural land, notwithstanding the BTNF Land and Resource Management Plan that includes a stated goal to ‘[h]elp re-establish historic elk migration routes to provide increased viewing and hunting opportunities for outfitters and clients.’  Based on the record, feedgrounds seem to undermine this goal.”

Judge Freudenthal’s decision “VACATES the (Forest) Service’s decision” to reauthorize the winter elk feedground at Alkali Creek, and “REMANDS to the agency for further proceedings consistent with this decision.”

“We applaud this ruling by Judge Freudenthal as a big step in the right direction that is long overdue,” said Dorsey.  “It’s time to recognize the true threat these feedgrounds pose to elk throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecoregion.”

The conservation organizations are represented in this lawsuit by the public interest law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks LLP.

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