Although the Wyoming Game & Fish Department’s (WG&F) proposed Elk Feedgrounds Management Plan flatly states, “It is not a feedground closure plan,” the plan sets out the path the agency will use to do just that. It states, “The overall goal of this plan is to encourage managers to continue to explore opportunities for elk to winter away from feedgrounds by increasing tolerance for elk on private, state, and federal lands while reducing reliance on supplemental feeding.”
The agency readily admits its vision will require “major shifts in current land use” and a lot of public support and money so the agency can “acquire” elk winter range “through purchase, lease, or other elk occupancy agreements.”
It won’t be fast enough to satisfy those opposed to the elk feeding program, but the path laid out in the plan should send chills down the spines of cattle operators located near existing feedgrounds. Since our outfit is located just a few miles from one of the feedgrounds, it’s hard for me not to envision the potential result.
While the state plan focuses on actions to “reduce or eliminate reliance of elk on supplemental feed,” the plan is stunningly similar to environmental advocate proposals to eliminate all elk feedgrounds in favor of elk free ranging in winter across broad swathes of Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties.
I understand that since this plan is proposed by a state wildlife agency, it wasn’t intended to discuss the importance of maintaining viable agricultural operations on the landscape. But the draft plan frames traditional cattle ranching more of an obstacle to elk management rather than a critical partner for success, a few uses of “work cooperatively” aside. Most of Wyoming’s elk herds already use private land in the winter, as a recent research paper demonstrated, highlighting the importance of private lands “in conserving migratory ungulates and the habitats that they rely on.”
For an example of how the WG&F plan treats agriculture, in a section on “current social and economic values related to elk feedgrounds,” the plan specifies “social and economic values must be thoroughly considered in the future management of western Wyoming elk.”
It goes through hunter numbers and recreation days associated with elk hunting, hunter expenditures in the region, the economic benefits of wildlife-related tourism, and the revenue generated by outfitters and guides, but when it comes to agriculture, only WG&F costs associated with elk damage claims are mentioned.
Not mentioned is the critical nature of private agricultural lands in western Wyoming to maintaining intact ecosystems and connectivity for migrating wildlife herds, or how reductions in the economic viability of these operations could have devastating impacts to wildlife populations.
The plan notes a variety of impacts to nearby ag operations that would be detrimental to those operations as elk are increased on the landscape, such as:
• Increase in damage to private property
• Increase in spillover of brucellosis from elk to cattle
• “In the event of a large shift in elk distribution, it can be expected that wolves will likely follow their prey base. A change in elk and wolf distribution could complicate private livestock operations with additional predation on livestock in the vicinity.” Yeah, more wolves could “complicate” private livestock operations.
• “There would be potential for increased interspecific disease transmission in some areas and a larger area of prion deposition on the landscape” due to environmental contamination by elk harboring chronic wasting disease.
Since ag operations could be negatively impacted, the plan lays out actions for “voluntary livestock management strategies to reduce elk-livestock conflicts,” nearly all which seek to minimize agriculture and its presence. I’m not comforted by the idea that these actions are “voluntary” as the plan itself lays out the blueprint to coerce livestock producers to take these voluntary measures, such as:
• “The Department will build working relationships with NGOs (non-government organizations) and coordinate with them to maximize opportunities to increase elk occupancy on native winter ranges.”
• “Maximize opportunities with willing lessees to rest or retire public land grazing allotments in key locations on native elk winter ranges.”
• “The Department will work with federal land management agencies, local producers, the Wyoming State Livestock Board, and the Governor’s Office to determine areas where livestock AUMs can be adjudicated from livestock to wildlife use.”
• “The Department will need to reassess its approach to addressing damage to agriculture, commenting on county land development regulations, and influencing city ordinances.”
• “To garner the support needed to begin implementing necessary changes in our long-term vision for elk wintering in western Wyoming, the Department will look for cooperative opportunities to influence positive changes to statutes, regulations, county land development regulations, and city ordinances in order to encourage and promote cooperative elk use on private lands.”
• “It is the Department’s responsibility to ensure the education of Wyoming lawmakers about the positive benefits to the future of elk management with regard to reducing reliance on supplemental feeding.”
• “Long-term alternatives for how elk are allowed to winter in western Wyoming will require changes in law, funding, and public attitude regarding disease, damage, and elk occupancy.”
• “Increasing native winter range availability and use will take considerable time and funding, and major shifts in current land use.”
The plan states, “The Department has identified the following actions for voluntary livestock management strategies to reduce elk-livestock conflicts,” including “shipping livestock to areas of low risk for conflict and damage” and “conversion from cow-calf operations,” as if cattle were clothes you hang in a closet and switch around with ease.
WG&F isn’t known for its expertise in livestock management, and it’s way out of its realm on this one, alienating livestock producers in the process. The plan should have said that livestock producers should consider management actions and practices to reduce the risk of elk-cattle conflicts, and committed WG&F to working with producers toward that goal.
What measures can producers take to reduce risk of disease transmission and conflict? We can practice timing and geographical separation to minimize the risk of disease transmission from commingling between our livestock and elk.
Off the top of my head, we can use livestock guardian dogs, hazing on snow machines or horseback, or with drones, to keep elk off our winter feed lines. We can continue preventative programs of calf-hood vaccinations, adult booster vaccinations, and testing of our cattle, and fencing stackyards.
We can continue our existing rigorous herd health practices that reduce our cattle’s susceptibility to infection, and yes we can assess the type and class of livestock our grazing rotations. We can have the WG&F work with us rather than propose ways to eliminate us from the landscape.
We have some ideas on how to make this work, but WG&F needs to more than begrudgingly bring us to the table after they’ve set the stage to minimize our presence in the landscape by “shipping” us elsewhere, “converting” our operations to something else, or recommending federal agencies reduce our grazing permits – all while the state wildlife agency plans to put more elk on our private ground. We shouldn’t be viewed an obstacle to success of this plan, but a key to it.
The sooner WG&F realizes that, the sooner we can tackle the complex work ahead.
And it’s not just traditional ag production that will change under this plan. According to the draft: “In the case of Teton and northern Lincoln counties, this will require looking outside of traditional agricultural use properties.
Land ownership in western Wyoming has changed in recent decades, and there are now far fewer traditional agricultural operations. The long-term focus of this Plan must consider non-traditional land ownership as an avenue that must be explored as part of the future of elk winter habitat. The Department must seek out ways to cooperatively increase elk wintering opportunities on these lands.” (Emphasis added.)
As western communities deal with increasing human population and development, and land use changes, the need to sustain migratory connectivity is critical. We migrate our livestock herds with the seasons, and in doing so, we help to keep passage open to migrating wildlife herds as well. It’s a natural method of producing food and fiber.
But the WG&F plan to “acquire” winter range will encourage more “conservation ranching” and “fishing ranches” and “elk ranches,” which are often dominated by absentee owners or provide places for amenity owners to park their capital while they enjoy the view. This will change the very character of our communities; that’s what the plan means when it calls for “major shifts in current land use.”
WG&F will accept public comments through Sept. 10 at this location.
Public meetings are scheduled for:
July 24 – Teton County Public Library, Jackson, 6 pm
July 25 – Online via Zoom, 6 pm
July 26 – Sublette County Public Library, Pinedale, 6 pm
July 27 – Afton Civic Center, Afton, 6 pm
After the agency finalizes its plan, it will go for WG&F Commission approval at the November 2023 meeting. Once the plan is approved, WG&F will begin developing Feedground Management Action Plans at the elk herd-unit level.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.