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Report encourages elk feeding

Associated Press — Sept. 1, 2004

LANDER, Wyo. — If the supplemental feeding of elk in the Jackson area is ceased or curtailed, the number of elk would most likely have to be drastically reduced by at least 7,000, the author of a report on feedgrounds says.

"These elk (if not fed) will disperse to private lands ... and because there is no other way to control those elk, they will be killed because of the brucellosis risk or to prevent damage to private lands," Garvice Roby told a governor's brucellosis task force during a meeting Friday.

The Jackson Elk Herd Unit averages from 15,000 to 17,000 animals. About 6,000 elk in the herd spent parts of last winter on National Elk Refuge feedgrounds north of Jackson.

"Significant curtailing or eliminating elk feeding in the unit would likely precipitate a substantial die-off of wintering elk, or require the Game and Fish to cull the herd," he said. "And elk trend data clearly shows that habitat improvement projects will not maintain (current) elk numbers," said Roby, a retired longtime Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist.

Roby presented his report, titled the "Ramifications of Reduction or Elimination of Feeding on the Elk of Jackson Hole," which was commissioned by the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife of Wyoming.

The report speculated what might happen if feeding were terminated or reduced on the National Elk Refuge and on three agency feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre River drainage. The report focused on the department's Elk Hunt Area 80.

The report concluded, among other things, that a significant reduction or the elimination of feeding would lead to large-scale brucellosis transmission to livestock because elk would scatter throughout private property and ranches in the area.

Many elk and bison in the greater Yellowstone area are infected with the disease brucellosis, which can be transmitted to cattle and cause cows to abort their first calves.

But several task force members disputed Roby's assertion that transmission of the disease would increase with the closing of feedgrounds.

"That point troubles me," said group member Kenneth Mills of the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory. "It goes against what we know ... that there's absolutely no question it would slow (transmission) of the disease down. When you concentrate elk (on feedgrounds) ... it will eventually infect them all."

Roby also said stopping or reducing feeding would also lead to intense competition for extremely limited forage in the Jackson Hole area between elk, bighorn sheep and moose that winter in the area.

"Without feedgrounds, I doubt that Jackson Hole country could support different big game species ... and that means bighorn sheep and moose numbers would decline even further," he said.

The Game and Fish operates 22 feedgrounds that are scattered throughout western Wyoming. The department also assists in the operation of the federally run National Elk Refuge.

Feedgrounds came to the fore of the brucellosis debate after the discovery in November that a cattle herd adjacent to a feedground was infected with the disease. The discovery cost Wyoming its federal brucellosis-free status and led to costly testing of Wyoming cattle before they are sold.

In response to that outbreak, Gov. Dave Freudenthal appointed a 19-member task force, with a scientific support team, to chart a course to a long-term solution to the brucellosis problem. The team's report is due in November.

The next meeting of the task force is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 15-16 in Jackson. The October meeting will be held in Gillette.

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