Time to do Jackson elk right on national refuge
Lloyd Dorsey and Jeff Welsch | GYC
Among the many reasons we choose to live in Jackson Hole, surely ranking near the top is our affection for wildlife and all that these wild animals of Greater Yellowstone represent.
Bears, wolves, bison, moose, pronghorn, eagles —‚ we watch them, we admire them, we adapt to them, we understand their value to our incomparable way of life and the overall health of one of the last great ecosystems on the planet.
And so we fight for them, too. We'll help visitors learn to behave properly around grizzly bears. We'll challenge our own state's flawed plan regarding wolves. And we'll advocate against industrial sprawl so prong horn have pathways for their historic annual journeys from Grand Teton National Park to the Little Colorado Desert.
So it is beyond mystifying that we continue to invite ill health at best and catastrophe at worst for perhaps our most cherished of all wildlife: The Jackson Hole Elk Herd.
The winter feeding of elk began with the best intentions a century ago. But as with manual typewriters, transistor radios and rotary telephones, it's time to banish this obsolete, unnatural and unhealthy annual rite to the dustbin of history.
Never mind that the National Elk Refuge is a petri dish for disease where the “wild“ elk are baited in such bloated densities that they wallow in their own feces, urine and muck. Never mind that highly infectious and always-fatal chronic wasting disease lurks just a couple divides away, its impacts so potentially devastating that images of elk toughing out harsh winters naturally will pale by comparison. Never mind that failing to phase out the annual elk soup kitchen before the arrival of CWD would be the height of recklessness, given the Jackson Hole elk's local economic value and their seasonal mingling with other Yellowstone herds.
And never mind that the elk refuge's solution to elk densities and disease — a $5.2 million irrigation boondoggle that last year provided a paltry 5 percent of the refuge's forage — is a costly waste of taxpayer money that runs counter to Wyoming's fiscal conservatism and itchiness over big government programs.
There is a higher calling for phasing out the alfalfa-pellet buffet lines at the elk refuge — and 22 other state-run feedgrounds that exist because western Wyoming seems to think its elk herds are somehow different than those elk that win ter naturally in Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and, ahem, northern, southern, eastern and central Wyoming.
Feeding elk no longer aligns with the mission of a wildlife refuge. A federal court said as much in a deci sion last year that clarified the need for a phaseout of the feeding pro gram to manage for healthy wildlife. Even if you're skeptical about CWD hanging over the elk herd like the Sword of Damocles, if you cherish wildlife like most of us in Jackson Hole, then surely gazing across the vast manicured lawn that is today's elk refuge raises suspicions that something is askew.
Now look at those same lands and imagine a smaller but healthier, free-ranging herd of elk along with moose, wolves, beaver, songbirds, and cutthroat trout thriving amid wild plant communities associated with an intact ecosystem.
Isn't that a truer reflection of what we value about Jackson Hole, the geographic heart of the 20 million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?
Sure, there are concerns, though none are insurmountable. A careful phaseout will ensure that tough Rocky Mountain elk will thrive on protected winter ranges, fencing will separate the 700 or so cattle that remain in the valley from free ranging elk, and visitors on sleighs will marvel at the Serengeti-like landscape that rises from the current refuge monoculture.
We can do better by our most cherished wildlife, and you can join the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in finding out how. The coalition is convening community conversations about a healthier future without elk food lines.
Our next gathering is at 5:30 p.m. July 13 at St. John's Episcopal Church. Danny Schmidt's inspiring film “Feeding The Problem“ will be shown, and former elk refuge biologist and author Dr. Bruce Smith will discuss how best to move forward to ensure healthy, free-ranging wildlife in Jackson Hole.
Lloyd Dorsey is a conservation advocate in GYC's Jackson office. Jeff Welsch is GYC's communications director in Bozeman.