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WY Game And Fish Seeks Public Input In Elk Feedlot Revisions

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is reconsidering how it manages the state's winter elk-feeding grounds, in part to mitigate the risk of infectious diseases, and the agency is looking for public input to develop a long-term plan.

Mark Gocke, public information specialist for the agency's Jackson region, said it's important to address the threats of chronic wasting disease at feeding grounds, where large numbers of animals congregate in close quarters.

"It has been spreading across the state, and so we want to plan for that," Gocke explained. "As it is always fatal for the animals that get chronic wasting disease, which means it could potentially be population-limiting."

Gocke noted there are currently no cases of chronic wasting disease on the state's 22 winter feeding grounds, but mule deer and whitetail deer populations have seen major outbreaks in southeastern Wyoming and the disease is spreading westward.

Feedgrounds were first introduced in 1929 to keep elk away from food intended for livestock, and proponents say they help keep elk numbers strong after the loss of historic habitat to development.

Comments can be added at the agency's website through Jan. 8.

Connie Wilbert, director of the Sierra Club's Wyoming chapter, said the state's iconic big game could take a serious long-term hit if chronic wasting disease, which can infect elk, deer and moose, sweeps through herds.

She observed fencing around hay stores and other tactics are effective at preventing elk encounters with livestock, and argued artificially drawing large numbers of elk to be in close proximity each winter poses a much bigger risk.

"And they don't leave, for the whole time they're there," Wilbert contended. "They are crowded together, they are standing there, they are lying there right next to each other, and that is a classic setup for quick disease transmission."

Wilbert added elk populations don't need feedlots to remain strong because there still is enough available habitat with ample winter food sources.

Game and Fish could tap a working group after the initial public comment period to create a long-term management plan that includes recommendations for whether to phase out, or continue, the winter feeding program.

The final plan would need to be approved by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission.