elk winter

Elk congregate in the Gros Ventre River drainage northeast of Jackson, Wyo.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest authorized using up to five acres at the Alkali Creek Feedground for emergencies only to feed elk for the 2019 to 2024 feeding seasons.

The permit, issued this week, authorizes Wyoming Game and Fish Commission the use of one elk tagging corral, one horse corral, one tack shed, one haystack-yard containing two haysheds, and a water facility. The permit area was reduced from the 91 acres authorized in previous seasons.

The Forest Service plans to eliminate feeding at Alkali Creek by or before the 2024 winter season. The hope is to disperse elk to help prevent the spread of the always-fatal chronic wasting disease which was recently discovered to be in the region.

Chronic wasting disease is a neurological illness caused by a deformed protein called a prion. Transmission to humans or livestock hasn't ever been documented, but researchers haven't entirely ruled out the possibility.

The Alkali Creek Feedground is a smaller elk feedground located several miles east of the larger National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyo., along the Gros Ventre River. There is also the Patrol Cabin and Fish Creek feedgrounds farther up the Gros Ventre River drainage.

“It is not business as usual,” Mary Moore, Jackson District Ranger said in a news release. “Emergency feeding is carefully defined as 1) feeding only if significant elk damage or an elk/livestock co-mingling situation develops on nearby private land, 2) or if it is necessary to catch or stop a large number of elk (200 or more) from moving down drainage from Patrol Cabin or Fish Creek elk feedgrounds, 3) and if I concur that one of these emergency situations exists.”

The Forest Service originally planned to phase out the 91-acre Alkali Creek Feedground over a 10-year period, but that decision was thrown out after a court challenge by the Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. The organization challenged the planned phase-out as too slow.

Chronic wasting disease has been marching west giving state-run feedgrounds extra attention. There are 22 feedgrounds in western Wyoming. Chronic wasting disease has yet to be detected in Idaho, but Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials are expecting the disease to enter the state in the near future.

“It’s not here yet, but when it comes, it’s likely to be detected in eastern Idaho first,” said James Brower, regional communications director for Idaho Fish and Game.

With the partial loss of migration routes to suitable winter range and the direct loss of winter range with rural development and fencing, Wyoming Game and Fish would initiate supplemental feeding for elk to keep them out of private land, damaging stored crops and mingling with livestock.

Wyoming feedgrounds, including the National Elk Refuge, were created in the early 1900s in response to large-scale winter die-offs and elk entering private lands and damaging stored hay crops.

The Forest Service said that emergency feeding is only supposed to be temporary.

“When I approve an initiation of emergency feeding, I will also be specifying when emergency feeding must cease on the feedground,” Moore said with the latest authorization.