USFWS sued over winter feeding

By Laura Bies

A recent lawsuit cites disease transmission concerns in asking the court to stop winter feeding at the National Elk Refuge. ©Tony Hough/USFWS

Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Refuge Association sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to halt the winter feeding program at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming. 

The refuge was established in 1912 as increasing human settlement of the Jackson Hole area led to farmer and rancher conflicts with elk (Cervus canadensis). Elk coming down from the mountains in winter often found forage in landowners’ haystacks. The refuge was developed, in part, to provide winter habitat and supplemental food for the elk, easing those conflicts.

Supplemental winter feeding has been contentious for years, becoming more so as wildlife diseases such as chronic wasting disease and brucellosis spread across the continent. Supplemental feeding concentrates animals at feeding areas, often at unnaturally high densities, increasing the chances of disease spread.

In the lawsuit, the groups assert that “The Refuge feeding program … threatens to become a vector for contagion that could spread throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and harm Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho elk populations.”

The organizations argue that the Service, by continuing the practice of winter feeding, has not met its duties under the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act to “ensure that the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of the System are maintained for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.”

The plaintiffs ask the court to compel the Service to move forward in 30 days with the planning necessary to begin phasing out winter feeding. The elk refuge developed a plan in 2007 that included a transition away from intensive winter feeding, in coordination and collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, but it has not begun implementing it.

CWD has not been detected in elk within the National Elk Refuge, although brucellosis rates there are high. A deer in nearby Grand Teton National Park tested positive for CWD in November, prompting another call to stop winter feeding.

Read TWS’ Position Statement on Baiting and Supplemental Feeding of Game Wildlife Species and Standing Position on Wildlife Disease.

Laura BiesLaura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with The Wildlife Society since 2005. Read more of Laura's articles.

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