Should we feed elk?


As our horse-drawn sleigh glided out onto the National Elk Refuge north of Jackson, Wyo., 2,000 elk, about a third of what is expected to eventually show up, pawed at the snow for the grass beneath or rested contentedly in small groups.

That all changes with the next storm. The rest of the herd will pour onto the refuge, and with over 6,000 hungry elk, refuge personnel will feed them for the rest of the winter.

The scattered groups will coalesce into long lines of shoulder-to-shoulder elk, eating from stringers of pelletized hay. Visually, it is striking and thrilling to see this many elk up close, and thousands of people ride the sleighs each year to witness it. Biologically, managers fear it is a ticking time bomb.

Elk feeding almost always has its roots in human development. We build cities on winter range or choke off migration routes with interstates and elk begin to stack up in places where they have never wintered before and can’t winter without assistance. The snow is too deep, the forage too thin or they are too close to human interests, or all three. Eventually, they find every available haystack, take up residence in backyards and get hit by trains, semi-trucks and cars.

Such a scenario quickly becomes intolerable and we turn to agricultural practices to remedy it. After all, we have been feeding livestock for thousands of years. Why not elk? Within a few years, we develop the perception that hay can substitute for winter range and feeding becomes an annual operation.

On the surface, feeding the elk, barnyard style, does seem like a reasonable solution. We can have our cities and highways and elk get fed, so where is the problem?

The issues surrounding elk feeding are socially, philosophically and biologically complex.

First, who will pay for it? Wyoming’s 22 official feedgrounds service over 20,000 head at a cost of almost $3 million each year. Proponents of feeding will quickly point out that feeding is less expensive than paying for damage to stored and standing crops, but the program still runs in the red.

Elk hunters often appreciate feedgrounds because the number of elk that survive the winter can be, and usually is, far higher than the native range would support. For a wildlife agency to suggest that reduced elk numbers are preferable to feeding is tantamount to heresy for some of their strongest constituents.

Philosophically, there is the argument of “unwilding” our elk. Our sleigh driver made it a point to tell us just how quickly the elk become comfortable with the sleighs. Elk habituated to humans in any way are one step closer to domestication, a knife thrust to the very heart of wildness.

Biologically, the ticking time bomb is wildlife disease. Tuberculosis, hoof rot, brucellosis, pasteurella, scabies, chronic wasting disease and more are good reasons to fear feeding. Anytime wildlife of any sort is concentrated and come into nose-to-nose contact, the risk of disease transmission grows exponentially.

Elk are our heritage. We should do whatever we can to protect them and ensure their place in the future. The question is, does feeding elk help or hurt that objective in the long run?

I’ll try to answer that question in a future column.

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