Ungulate Uncertainty : The deepening debate over elk management in the hole

by Melissa Thomasma/Planet Jackson Hole | APRIL 25, 2017

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Dead bodies of deer and elk are unpleasant to see. Whether they lay alongside a busy roadway, victims of an accidental strike, or on the National Elk Refuge. Casualties of an unforgiving winter, their specter is disagreeable if not gruesome. Over the course of the past season, we were witness to many such ungulate fatalities. The large amounts of snow made winter forage challenging for animals to access, and drove many deer and elk to linger near roadways. Though the final mortality estimates are still under calculation by Game and Fish, it’s fair to anticipate a higher number than in recent years. It’s not news: Winter 2016-17 was rough.

The visible nature of this winter’s impact has brought an important conversation to the forefront in the Jackson Hole community: Are we managing local ungulates in the best way possible?

Opinions on the topic vary, but there’s a sense on all sides that we’re at a crossroads when it comes to elk management. The numbers of elk inhabiting the refuge each winter are increasing, and the pending impact of climate change on habitat and weather patterns is tough to predict. And one of the most frightening threats to the ungulate population, chronic wasting disease, is knocking on the front door. Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing: a robust and sustainable ungulate population. How to achieve that, however, is a matter of fierce debate.

Biologists and conservationists warn that continued practices like feeding record numbers of elk on the refuge are a cocktail for disaster. They champion the conservation of large predators to weed out sick and weak animals and strengthen the health of the overall herd. On the other side, passionate wildlife lovers argue that the elk will be decimated without wintertime support from humans. Wolves, lions and bears, they contend, are part of the problem; elk will only thrive when faced with fewer challenges, not more.

Joanna Johnson, of local organization Concerned Citizens for the Elk, says that these predators have impacted the ungulate population in Jackson Hole. “Wolves have caused serious distribution problems. Elk are no longer migrating to traditional summer ranges. Instead many are hanging out in subdivisions along the river, in [Grand Teton National Park], to get away from the wolves. Grizzly populations are above objectives and are overreaching designated territories; they are killing newborn ungulates,” she said.

Johnson finds the idea of letting elk starve over the winter inherently repugnant. “[The] refuge biologist says the public needs to be more tolerant of animals—elk and bison—invading private property and elk winter mortality through starvation, seeing dying and dead animals,” Johnson continued. Ultimately, this is an example, she argues, of the federal government destroying Wyoming’s state assets, and it’s unacceptable.

Some locals drive this notion even further. In what can only be described as a bombastic guest opinion piece, “Scientists to Blame for Wildlife Die-Off,” John C. Branca III slammed the calls for science and fact-based management in favor of what he feels is a more common sense approach. “Yes, the volume of ‘bio-babble’ and ‘Chicken Little’ management and management by photographer has taken center stage for many years now,” he lamented. “The call for ‘science-based decisions’ simply says, ‘I have no idea what I’m talking about, but I want someone to make up answers to fit my agenda.”

He scoffs at “pale-faced mountain lion experts,” who he believes have somehow artificially bolstered the cougar population. “We did not have a lion population because of the harsh winters. The recent lion population has sure given a lot of people meaningless jobs to do meaningless research and make a lot of meaningless statements, especially at meaningless meetings.”

Branca categorized those who are against feeding elk and removing predators as “misguided” and “good-intentioned newcomers” who do not “truly care about wildlife” and are “unable to see wrong from right.” He contended that “Hundreds and hundreds of big game animals could have been saved this winter.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum are conservation organizations like Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, the Sierra Club and, to an increasing extent, the managers of the National Elk Refuge. “Not artificially feeding and concentrating deer and elk, spreading them out naturally across the landscape, and conserving abundant predators are the best tools we have to ensure the health of our wildlife for the future,” said Lloyd Dorsey, conservation director for Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter. Quality of herds, not quantity, is a far truer measure of ecosystem health.

Championing artificial feeding and predator minimization is myopic—at best, old fashioned, at worst, utterly catastrophic. The landscape cannot sustain herds at these numbers, and dynamic factors, like climate change and a looming epidemic, are the realities of management in 2017.

Wasting away

Chronic wasting disease, a neurodegenerative disease that attacks members of the ungulate family, is reminiscent of some sci-fi pathogen. Neither bacteria nor virus, the prion that causes CWD isn’t actually a living thing, and it is not yet fully understood by scientists. The current hypothesis is that prions are misshapen proteins that are capable of binding to healthy brain cells and hijacking them into deforming themselves. Essentially, the disease slowly eviscerates its host’s brain. CWD is among a constellation of similar diseases, known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies or TSEs, that includes mad cow disease and creutzfeldt-jakob disease in humans.

Another truly bizarre characteristic of CWD prions is their resilience in the ecosystem. “Prions are notoriously hard to destroy and can remain actively infectious in the tissues and fluids of living and dead animals, as well as leaching into the environment as a carcass decays, contaminating soils and water for long periods of time,” explained PJH columnist Todd Wilkinson in his article “The Coming Plague.

“Recent scientific studies in controlled settings have shown that prions shed via saliva, feces and urine into the ground can persist, especially in clay soils, and they can be taken up in living, growing vegetation.” This means that a single infected animal can spread the contagion for years, even after its individual demise.

CWD attacks the brains of deer, elk and moose, and is ultimately fatal. The progression isn’t pretty, either. Infected animals grow emaciated, and display tremors, aimlessness and eventually, as the disease’s name implies, waste away. Within two years, infected ungulates die. Though research is ongoing, there is no vaccine to prevent infection, nor any kind of intervention or therapy for infected animals. At the moment, there is also no scientific evidence that CWD can be transmitted to humans, but there’s no confirmation that it can’t. The Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization advise against consuming any elk or deer infected with the disease. However, as Wilkinson pointed out, “with long incubation times, elk and deer can appear asymptomatic of CWD for years.” Once the disease is present, it’s conceivable that a hunter would kill and consume an animal who appeared healthy, but wasn’t. This exposure, in theory, could increase the chance of the prion evolving and becoming more dangerous to humans.

The origin of chronic wasting disease is unclear, though some theorize it evolved from scrapie, a similar degenerative disease found in sheep. It was first discovered in captive research ungulates in Fort Collins, Colorado, in the late 1960s. Shortly thereafter, it was detected in wild populations of deer. “From this regional epicenter, the epidemic … is now affecting wild herds as far away as southern Colorado, eastern Nebraska, Utah, and northern Wyoming including the edges of the world-renowned Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” Dorsey explained. “Though its progress is not rapid, it is steady; in the Colorado-Wyoming area, the disease appears to push out across the landscape from endemic areas approximately 5 to 11 miles per year.”

In 1985, the first case in Wyoming was confirmed in a mule deer. The following year, it was detected in an elk. Now, the disease is marching across the state, and according to conservation groups Wyoming Wildlife Advocates and the Sierra Club, Teton and Uinta Counties are the only counties that have not yet detected the disease. The organizations have teamed up to map the progress of CWD as it moves ever closer to Jackson Hole’s iconic elk herd. According to Dorsey and Roger Hayden of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, the map shows that over the past two years the CWD endemic area in Wyoming is expanding by 3.3 million acres per year, and is spreading inexorably in all directions. Its arrival in Jackson is only a matter of time.

In mid-February, a dead doe deer was discovered near the Pinedale airport. She tested positive for CWD, marking a significant move of the disease closer to Jackson, and the first case in Sublette County.

“Finding this positive deer is very unfortunate and concerning. It does let us know that the added surveillance has yielded valuable information. We will continue our increased level of monitoring in and around the new CWD positive area, including testing and removal of any animals showing clinical symptoms of CWD or animals we find dead that are suitable for testing,” said Scott Edberg, deputy division chief of the Wildlife Division for the Wyoming Game and Fish.

A vulnerable population

When an elementary school student is ill, it’s wise to keep the child home, as pathogens like norovirus or influenza can spread like wildfire in the densely packed environment of a classroom. This is precisely how disease behaves on elk feedgrounds.

When animals linger in close quarters, and are encouraged to bunch up to eat human-distributed alfalfa pellets, disease communication among individuals tends to occur more easily than if they are browsing on natural forage. Likewise, the presence of excrement and the bodies of those who perish over the winter contribute to generally unsanitary conditions and more pathogens spread. “Not only do Wyoming elk carry brucellosis at elevated rates but feedground animals are at higher risk to catching other diseases, including virulent bovine tuberculosis, hoof rot and now, CWD,” Wilkinson noted.

The census of the National Elk Refuge in early 2017 revealed a record-shattering number: nearly 9,000 elk weathered out the wintry season there. That’s a whopping 77 percent higher than the refuge’s goal population of 5,000 animals. According to environmental reporter Mike Koshmrl, “The population of the larger Jackson Elk Herd was much near its own goal of 11,000. The raw count of 10,766 elk was up a sliver compared to last year’s 10,668 animals, but discouragingly for managers, the herd is as concentrated as ever on the National Elk Refuge.” Refuge managers seek to minimize this concentration by beginning feeding as late in the season as possible, ending it as early as possible, and spreading it out as much as they reasonably can.

“Based on current scientific information, eradication of CWD from free ranging cervids is currently not a realistic disease management objective, particularly since the disease has become established in multiple states and Canadian provinces, but eradication remains the ultimate desired outcome,” reads the Wyoming Game and Fish’s CWD Management Plan. So, if eliminating the disease isn’t realistic, what do Game and Fish officials intend to do? First, keep a close eye on how the disease is spreading by testing tissue samples submitted by hunters, and testing suspicious sick or dead animals. Should a deer, elk or moose show signs of illness consistent with CWD, Game and Fish will put it down and immediately test for the disease. “We have a very robust monitoring program, especially compared to other states,” said Renny MacKay, communications director for Wyoming Game and Fish.

In healthy herds, Game and Fish “will strive to meet herd population objectives by taking in account all factors and influences.” The plan says that killing large numbers of animals to achieve these numbers, while potentially effective, is not part of the agenda. “Large-scale culling in an attempt to reduce animal populations and minimize animal to animal contact has been attempted in other states … While such culling has shown it can reduce or maintain prevalence levels, it has proven to be expensive, unpopular, requires long-term application, and ultimately is unable to eradicate CWD,” the plan notes.

When it comes to feedgrounds, Game and Fish isn’t ready to kick them to the curb entirely. “Elk have been fed in northwest Wyoming since the early 1900s,” the plan notes. MacKay further explained, “feedgrounds were set up for a variety of reasons including managing the elk as a national resource, one that certainly has economic value to the surrounding area. It’s also a tool to manage other diseases like brucellosis.”

The plan also recognizes the complicated nature of feedgrounds. “Supplemental feeding of elk creates complex biological, social, economic and political issues. Wildlife disease adds to this complexity. Recent modeling … suggested that feedground elk may survive in the face of CWD at significantly reduced numbers … it is still unknown what impact CWD would ultimately have on feedground elk populations. Artificially concentrating elk on feedgrounds may result in more rapid spread of CWD and contribute to increased persistence of prions in the soil and uptake by vegetation.”

The Game and Fish plan expresses the organization’s dedication to surveillance of animals, both living and dead, and a willingness to review feeding policies, quotas, population objectives, hunting seasons and other management recommendations. Though it will strive to maximize the area in which elk are fed (to decrease density) for as little time as possible, Game and Fish officials plan to continue artificially feeding.

Many conservationists believe that these efforts simply aren’t sufficient. “It is incumbent upon state officials, as well as managers of the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, to implement a realistic plan to phase out artificial winter feeding now,” Hayden said. The deer that tested positive near Pinedale was only eight miles from the nearby Fall Creek feedground—a distance easily crossed by other infected animals in the region. Managers can’t afford to wait much longer to take meaningful steps to intervene.

The feedgrounds, somewhat ironically, were in part developed as an attempt to minimize disease transmission between wild ungulates and cattle. In order to prevent hungry elk from mingling on the feed line with their cows and horses, specialized feeding stations were designated for the game. This separation, ranchers argued, would prevent infection of their herds with diseases like brucellosis. However, this logic has backfired to some degree. Elk on overcrowded feedgrounds are more susceptible to acquire diseases, and spread them around the ecosystem. Healthy elk, on the other hand, can’t harm cattle even when in close proximity.

The National Elk Refuge was created as more land was taken up by ranches and human development, guided by the notion that without access to these previous stomping grounds, the animals would starve. “The justification for feeding is based upon the rationale that because so much elk winter range in Jackson Hole has been covered by human development and cattle ranches where elk are not welcome, feeding is necessary to maintain elk,” Wilkinson wrote. He goes on to explain why this logic doesn’t hold up. In other places around the West, elk populations endure without this kind of intervention.

“What [the National Elk Refuge] stands in contrast to, however, are mountain valleys across the West where elk persist in sustainable numbers naturally and are not given a subsidy of rations. Moreover, by having feed available, elk in winter no longer migrate out of Jackson Hole to lower elevation areas like they used to. On top of this, elk numbers on the refuge and feedgrounds swelled beyond their traditional carrying capacity because natural predators, namely wolves, had been eradicated.”

Ultimately, if elk were no longer fed through the winter, and predators were able to play their natural role in herd size management, the Jackson elk herd would shrink. The population would be smaller, but most likely healthier and more resilient in the face of the coming disease. But not everyone is amenable to that solution.

Hunters—human and animal

Wyoming, compared to neighboring states, is the place to hunt elk. With a hunter success rate of almost 45 percent, far more hunters fill their tags here than in Idaho, Montana or Colorado. And it’s not because hunters in the Equality State have some superior prowess. It’s because of the sheer number of elk.

Many outfitters and hunting guides are pleased with this, of course. Some in this industry want feeding to continue, and put little stock in the potential impact of CWD, Wilkinson explained. “Big game hunters, especially Wyoming outfitters and guides who profit by giving their high-paying clients an inflated number of animals to harvest, have vigorously defended feeding at the same time denying that CWD is a serious issue.”

Meredith Taylor, an outfitter and guide for more than 30 years, disagrees. “It seems inevitable that CWD will eventually infect the feedgrounds and when it does, the results will be catastrophic due to the high density of elk there,” she said. “It’s obvious that free-ranging wildlife are healthier and more sustainable than those on feedgrounds. So, the elk feedgrounds should be phased out to allow elk and other ungulates to migrate as they did before feedgrounds blocked their movement.” While hunters and outfitters may have to work harder to find elk, and there may not be as many overall, those that remain will be healthier and more resilient. Moreover, less density among the animals will act as mitigation against further pathogen spread.

Another critical factor in herd size management and disease mitigation? Predators. “It’s important for wildlife and land managers to think like an ecosystem rather than focus on just one species like elk,” Taylor said. “That means looking at the big picture to understand the needs of all wildlife. We are fortunate to have one of the largest intact ecosystems in the world here in Greater Yellowstone. Twenty million acres of wilderness, national parks, and national forests has provided the landscape for this conservation success story. We have already benefitted from the wolf and grizzly bear recovery efforts over the past two decades. Large carnivore populations are essential to the predator-prey balance and therefore the health of all native flora and fauna.”

“Having a healthy guild of predators—bears, wolves, coyotes and cougars—provides a line of defense that ultimately benefits cervids. Unfortunately in Wyoming, the state has treated predators as enemies of the big game herds when in fact, the opposite is true,” explained Dorsey of the Sierra Club. Wolves, for example, not only target the slowest, sick members of an elk herd, but also cause herds to spread out more across the landscape. They’re essentially slowing the spread of a disease in two ways. Moreover, current research is exploring whether or not CWD prions can survive the digestive tract of a predator. Though not yet confirmed, some researchers theorize that passage through predators and scavengers may be one of the few ways the prions could be destroyed and no longer dangerous.

In this capacity, the tough winter of 2016-17 may have a silver lining. Its harshness may have bought wildlife managers a little time to reconsider policies and actively mitigate for CWD’s arrival. “Serendipitously, what may allow us more time to put in place ecocentric predator-friendly policies to better manage elk and deer populations in the future is the severe winter of 2016-17… there will likely be significant loss among mule deer and white-tailed deer herds, which are the vanguard of CWD,” Dorsey said.

MacKay agrees that the tough winter may have helped slow the spread of the disease. “It’s been one of the harshest winters on record, and that’s had a significant impact on the deer population. It will be very interesting to see if that has impacted the prevalence of CWD.”

The big picture

As Taylor argued, managing Wyoming’s elk in a vacuum is not only short-sighted, such an approach will have many unintended consequences. Other species, spaces and communities must be taken into account.

In an unprecedented move in late February, the Montana Senate passed a resolution urging Wyoming to cease feeding on 23 sites across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Part of the resolution reads: “This practice results in artificially high populations of elk in these areas and a loss of the animals’ natural instincts to survive without human assistance. The [Fish and Wildlife Service] acknowledges that elk congregating in these unnaturally dense clusters can result in environmental damage and contamination.” Montana lawmakers cited concern for the spread of brucellosis, hoof rot and, of course, chronic wasting disease.

Montana officials have not yet detected chronic wasting disease in deer or elk. However, once the elk in and around Jackson Hole carry the prion, it’s only a matter of time before it spreads north through the national parks and into southern Montana. Similarly, Idaho is currently CWD-free. If Jackson Hole does nothing to buffer the impact of CWD, it won’t take long to spread westward, either.

The potential for chronic wasting disease to ravage deer and elk populations across the region is clear. But there isn’t much discussion about another important question: If chronic wasting disease severely damages the elk population, what might that mean for the grizzly bear population?

Grizzlies have four major sources of food, two of which are already in serious jeopardy. The cutthroat trout population, thanks to invasive lake trout, is declining. Whitebark pine, victim of climate change and aggressive beetles, is likewise disappearing. As of now, the bears rely heavily on army cutworm moths, but their future is uncertain at best. “Army cutworm moths are at risk due to a well-documented warming trend. They summer at high alpine elevations and further warming could affect the wildflowers they feed upon and collapse the GYE army cutworm moth population,” writes Kent Nelson, grizzly advocate, in his article “A Question About Chronic Wasting Disease That No One Is Asking.” The bears’ final critical food source? Elk.

“The effect CWD will have on grizzly bears of the Greater Yellowstone is largely unresearched,” Nelson explained. “The phrase ‘chronic wasting disease’ does not even appear in the grizzly bear Conservation Strategy that was recently approved by GYE bear managers.” In other words, Nelson is highlighting that management plans for grizzlies and elk are not appropriately considered in concert, but rather as discrete projects. That’s potentially detrimental to both species.

Should warming trends continue, which they are almost certain to, and army cutworm moths die off and CWD decimates feedground elk, what will the grizzlies eat? The outcome is unclear but there is potential for a precipitous decline in population, more predation on livestock and conflict with humans as they roam further in search of sustenance—all bad outcomes for one of GYE’s most iconic species.

What’s next?

Jackson Hole’s elk are an unquestionable resource. Tourists are delighted to see them, especially up close from the horse-drawn sleighs that traverse the National Elk Refuge. Hunters visit the state because abundant animals equal high success rates. Many locals fill freezers and feed families with responsibly and ethically harvested elk. Apex predators, many that top visitors’ wish lists to see, depend on elk as a critical food source. The prospect of rapidly dwindling elk numbers casts a shadow of doubt on each of these elements. And that has many locals concerned.

There is no easy answer, no simple fix. There are myriad factors that managers, conservationists, biologists and wildlife advocates can’t fully predict: the trajectory of climate change, the impact of chronic wasting disease, populations of apex predators as hunting regulations shift. Indeed, Jackson Hole’s elk herd faces a murky path ahead. PJH

Originally published here.