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Wyoming releases list of priorities to foster healthy elk populations

JIA HE/sinitar -

After receiving input from stakeholders earlier this year, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has released a list of priorities guiding its initial draft of a management plan for the controversial practice of feeding wild elk at winter feedgrounds. Kristin Combs with Wyoming Wildlife Advocates agrees with much on the list, but worries the emphasis on maintaining unnaturally large big-game populations could compromise herd health.

The one thing we don’t see in the list is having a robust suite of predators and large carnivores on the landscape that can really offer free services to provide for healthy elk herds," Combs said.

She said allowing predators to kill off animals that fall sick to chronic wasting and other communicable diseases will limit the risk of hunters harvesting diseased meat, and strengthen biodiversity and the region’s ecosystems. Some hunters support using feedgrounds to maintain large elk populations, and outfitters see the practice as a proven way to keep doors open for business.

The powerful ranching lobby has urged the agency to limit conflicts between cattle and elk, in part over fears of disease transmission. Combs notes other western states including Colorado, Idaho and Montana that do not use feedgrounds place part of the burden of limiting conflict on ranchers.

"Fencing out elk is a requirement, or fencing in your hay stores. Keeping your herd separated from elk is a part of the responsibility of raising cattle, versus having the government do this for you," said Combs.

Another priority is to modify feedground management to minimize disease transmission. Combs said the very nature of feedgrounds, where animals are packed together in close quarters, practically invites large-scale infections. But she agrees with the agency’s goal of helping elk transition to natural winter ranges.