Elk graze at the Dog Creek feed ground in Hoback, Wyo., on Feb. 25.  (Amber Baesler for The Washington Post)
Elk graze at the Dog Creek feed ground in Hoback, Wyo., on Feb. 25. (Amber Baesler for The Washington Post)

It began as a tool to save wild elk. A century later, feeding threatens iconic herds.

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HOBACK JUNCTION, Wyo. — It was shortly after 9 a.m. and just under zero degrees, and the elk were hungry. A thousand or so of them huddled together in a snowy field, watching as two towering horses trudged forth pulling a sleigh piled with two tons of hay.

Over the next 90 minutes, a two-man crew from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department tossed clumps of grass and alfalfa to the ground, doing what their agency and others across the nation exhort the public not to do: They fed the wildlife.

The meal service was part of one of the world’s most unusual and the West’s most controversial wildlife management programs, under which more than 20,000 wild elk in northwest Wyoming are fed daily all winter — on 22 state feed grounds, like this one, and the federal National Elk Refuge in nearby Jackson.

The feeding started more than a century ago to prevent withered herds, devastated by hunting and settlement that cut off migration routes, from starving during frigid winters. It has since morphed into a tool to keep the animals — which spend summers grazing on high-elevation grasses in forests and Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks — away from ranches and roads, and to keep the area’s elk population robust for hunters and tourists.

“If you skip a day, they go to the neighbors,” — in this case, a golf course and horse farms across a busy highway, said Dave Hyde, who manages the feed ground here, known as Dog Creek, and 10 others. “They go looking for feed.”

But what began as a lifeline is increasingly viewed as a potential path to a ghastly elk die-off throughout the famed Yellowstone ecosystem. That is because the feed grounds concentrate elk in densities that amplify various illnesses. The looming concern is that they could become superspreader sites for chronic wasting disease, or CWD, an always-fatal neurological disorder that causes stumbling, weight loss and spongelike brain lesions in deer, elk and moose.

But a problem that might seem to have a simple solution — stop feeding elk — has over the decades become a tangled web of emotion, economics and culture. The fight raises questions about what humans owe wild animals on a landscape we’ve inexorably altered, and it underscores the degree to which wildlife management is often more about politics than it is about animals.

At the center is a bleak choice: Ending feeding would mean fewer elk sustained only by a fragmented habitat — an option unpalatable to hunters, among others. Continuing might also mean a smaller, disease-ravaged elk population — an outcome many scientists and conservationists view as unjustifiable.

“The science is very cut and clear. It’s not really what people are debating,” said Tenley Thompson, the general manager of Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, which operates wildlife tours in the region. “What people are debating is the socioeconomic element and the social element, and it’s about people at the end of the day.”

Chronic wasting disease is now a focus of a state review of the feedings. CWD risk was also a factor in a recent federal court ruling that prompted a U.S. Forest Service environmental analysis of state feed grounds on its land, and it is one catalyst for a recently launched and long-litigated plan to wean some elk off the provisions at the National Elk Refuge.

In the five decades since it was identified, CWD has spread to 27 U.S. states and five countries. Although it has not been found on Wyoming’s feed grounds, it has been discovered in two hunted elk from two herds that dine on them. Scientists say that means the disease, which is quickly transmitted but slow to cause symptoms, is circulating on feed grounds. State and federal researchers recently predicted CWD could reach prevalence levels well above those that would shrink the 11,000-strong Jackson herd even if hunting is reduced.

It is a grim prospect in a place where elk are iconic. Arches of elk antlers flank Jackson’s town square, where an annual antler auction is held. The 25,000-acre refuge, where winter sleigh rides offer close-up looks at elk, is a major attraction. Fall brings tourists eager to hear mating elk bugle and hunters who fan across the rugged backcountry, contributing millions of dollars to a hunting and outfitting industry that buoys the region between summer crowds and ski season. Locals, meanwhile, fill their freezers with elk meat.

“Elk are an indispensable economic and cultural asset in Teton County,” said Luther Propst, vice chair of the county commission, which has avoided weighing in on feeding, a topic Propst referred to as a culture war. “Elk are very visible and very awe-inspiring.”

But Propst said he worries chronic wasting disease at the National Elk Refuge could someday contaminate the town’s nearby well water. CWD, which is related to mad cow disease, is caused by misfolded proteins called prions that can survive for years in soil. Although the disease is not known to sicken humans, some scientists fear that could change. As the coronavirus showed, diseases can spill over from animals to humans with deleterious effect.

“We keep increasing, increasing, increasing the amount of chronic wasting disease, therefore the amount of infectious prions in the environment. Even if an event were to only happen one in a billion times, that one in a billion is happening more frequently every year,” said Washington State University Professor Margaret Wild, a CWD expert who now studies another transmissible illness, elk hoof disease.

Chronic wasting disease affects elk herds at different rates, and the reasons are unclear, Wild said. But in those where prevalence is high, she said, “it can threaten the sustainability of the population.”

An essential reason the feed grounds still exist, paradoxically, is to prevent disease transmission. Elk in this region are reservoirs for brucellosis, which can cause cows to abort and force ranchers to quarantine herds. Feed grounds help keep elk from raiding cattle feedlines and haystacks — and from spreading brucellosis. But crowded feed grounds also perpetuate the disease in fed elk, which have it at higher rates than Wyoming’s unfed herds.

For this reason, the state’s powerful livestock industry is a fierce defender of the elk buffets. Last year, the legislature passed a bill requiring any state feed ground closure be reviewed by the Wyoming Livestock Board and approved by the governor.

The hunting industry, too, opposes closures and argues that environmental organizations have long weaponized the threat of CWD. Ending feeding would lead to a “mass starving event,” said Sy Gilliland, president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association.

“We need that winter feed and overwinter survival of these elk so that they can go out and make more babies and have calves and then provide food for sportsmen and food for predators,” he said. “We just screwed up when we developed this state, and we didn’t make room for the elk. We didn’t give them wintering habitat.”

Supporters of ending feeding, including environmental advocates and former elk refuge officials, do not argue for an immediate cutoff. Instead, they say, it should be phased out, and elk should be aided by wildlife crossings over deadly highways and deals with landowners whose properties have winter forage or sit on migration routes.

“This really is kind of a classic ticking time bomb. Every year that goes by, we’re closer to a much, much bigger problem unfolding,” said Connie Wilbert, Wyoming chapter director for the Sierra Club. “So we’re hoping there’s still time to allow these animals to move back to their natural movements.”

There would be fewer elk, Wilbert conceded. But some say that’s the point: If the landscape can’t support the current elk population, then the population is too big.

“Ninety-seven percent of [North American] elk are not fed in winter. Of the three percent that are, three-fourths are in western Wyoming. This is an odd, odd thing,” said Bruce L. Smith, who was the National Elk Refuge biologist for 22 years and has authored books about the animals. “And it’s because the state will not address numbers of elk and having those numbers in balance with the winter range.”

Other states that also have lots of elk and cattle and development, including Colorado, do not feed. Idaho calls the practice a “last resort.” Montana’s fish and wildlife commission in 2017 pleaded with Wyoming to stop feeding, saying its own ability to combat CWD “will depend upon decisions that Wyoming makes.”

Wyoming wildlife officials say all options are on the table in their ongoing review of feed grounds. But they have been quick to emphasize that the effort is not aimed at doing away with them all. That, officials said, would require a profound culture shift — one that not only accepts fewer elk, but also has more elk-resistant fencing and foliage.

“Some of these guys have got hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of landscaping,” Hyde, holding the reins of the sleigh on a recent morning, said of property owners in the wealthy Jackson area.

The state spends about $2 million a year on feed grounds. At each, two feeders dole out 8 to 13 pounds of hay per elk each morning with the help of horses, which are adept at traversing deep snow and, unlike tractors, “start every day,” Hyde said.

To reduce disease risk, state officials said, feeders space out hay to keep elk from crowding, and increasingly delay the start of feeding and end it early. Feeders also monitor elk for CWD symptoms. Those that appear ill are euthanized and tested — about 10 a year, Hyde said.

The clash over feed grounds does not always have bright lines. Some hunters want a smaller, healthier herd. Some wildlife enthusiasts don’t want any elk going hungry, even if feeding is unnatural. Hyde said he received a call one recent morning from a local who drove by a feed ground and was alarmed to see elk gathered at their typical mealtime, with nothing to eat at their hoofs.

“People expect it. That’s part of the deal,” said Hyde, who explained to the caller that the feeder was running late.

Joel Bousman, a Sublette County commissioner and rancher, said the state feed grounds provide some peace of mind about brucellosis, an ever-present threat to operators whose businesses survive on the margins. But he also hauls 400 tons of hay each year from one section of his operation — because it is near a feed ground. Having his cattle eat it there, close to so many elk, is too risky, he said.

“There’s pros and cons, for sure,” Bousman said.

Thompson, of Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, said demand for elk-viewing tours is booming, especially during the fall rut, a period she described as “big, big money.” That business depends on having lots of elk around.

But the company favors phasing out feeding anyway, Thompson said.

“It would certainly not be in our best interest,” she said. “But it would be in the elk’s best interest.”

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