Bill would strip Game & Fish’s authority to close elk feed grounds

by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Elk on a feedground in the Gros Ventre River drainage (provided/Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

A group of lawmakers have filed a bill that seeks to shift authority over elk feedground closures from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to the governor.

Seven co-sponsored filed House Bill 101 – Elk feedground closing requirements Tuesday.

It would require the governor to consider Game and Fish recommendations, Wyoming Livestock Board comments on those and input from the public. Four of the sponsors list ranching as at least one of their professions.

Close quarters on 23 western Wyoming winter feedgrounds will exacerbate the spread of incurable, fatal Chronic Wasting Disease, say conservation and environmental groups that have advocated for their closure. Game and Fish found the first feedground-herd elk infected with the disease after a hunter shot it Dec. 2, 2020 during the Grand Teton National Park elk reduction program, elevating alarm.

The bill establishes a transparent process for what would be a high-impact decision affecting more than just wildlife, said lead sponsor and cattleman Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale). “I want to make sure this is a discussion with all agencies that are involved,” he said.

“Let’s call it a multi-species decision,” Sommers said, noting that feedground closures would impact stockgrowers. “That’s not just a Game and Fish issue.”

Wyoming’s Sierra Club chapter director called the measure “a pretty terrible idea.”

The bill is “a classic case of legislators trying to micromanage in areas where they have no expertise,” said Connie Wilbert, Wyoming chapter director of the group. “They’re not wildlife experts, they’re not wildlife disease experts — nor is the governor.”

Committee action in March?

Sommers said he hopes the bill will be worked in committee when the Legislature reconvenes in March. In addition to its other provisions, HB 101 would require the Game and Fish Department to plan to relocate a feedground if permission to operate it on federal land is ended. Eight of the 22 state-run feedgrounds are on National Forest property, six are on Bureau of Land Management land.

The governor would have emergency authority to close a feedground for six months under the bill.

Bull elk on the National Elk Refuge. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Reps. Jamie Flitner (R-Greybull), Pat Sweeney (R-Casper) and John Winter (R-Thermopolis) plus Sens. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer), Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) co-sponsored the bill.

Discovery of the Grand Teton infection prompted the manager of the National Elk Refuge to say he would raise the issue of the objective size of the 11,000-strong Jackson Elk Herd with state managers in the coming year. All told, some 20,000 elk populate the state’s 22 feedgrounds and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Elk Refuge in winter.

After the 2019 hunting season, Game and Fish estimated a statewide elk population of 112,900. Among the 28 herds with population estimates, counts came in 32% — 25,575 elk — above the statewide objective.

Game and Fish launched an initiative in December addressing the CWD-feedground issue. Officials have said they will not shut down any feedgrounds for at least a decade.

In addition to supporting an abundance of elk, feedgrounds draw wildlife away from nearby ranches and highways. They also make up for wildlife habitat that’s been developed.

CWD is a cousin of Mad Cow Disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease in people. Caused by a malformed protein called a prion, it affects the central nervous system including the brain, spinal column and lymph nodes.

Sick individuals become emaciated, lethargic and drool, shedding prions in the process. There are few methods for neutralizing the malformed protein, including incinerating it at high temperature or dousing it with chemicals. Prions can exist in the environment for years without breaking down.

Sidestepping science?

Any recommendation to close a feedground today would likely find its way to the governor’s desk in any case, Sommers said. The bill creates a process for “all to be heard” before “the big dog decision-maker makes the call,” he said.

“I think it rises to the level of having a more thorough process,” Sommers said of elk feedground closures. “It just increases public participation” and provides “a clear decision-making tree.”

For Wilbert, the measure sidesteps science.

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“The Legislature doesn’t like the information they’re getting from the scientists and wildlife experts,” she said, “and they think they can do a better job. They’re politicizing an issue that shouldn’t be politicized.”

CWD has arrived in a feedground herd and urgent action is necessary, she said.

“I’m really disappointed in this approach,” she said. “We should leave wildlife management to wildlife management experts and it should be based on the best available science.”

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