JACKSON — Federal wildlife officials plan to start weaning National Elk Refuge’s namesake animals off of supplemental feed this coming winter, but it’s looking like they won’t have the support of their Wyoming counterparts.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik says his agency will continue to contest the refuge’s “step-down” plan at least as currently construed.
“We are not on board with its current form,” Nesvik said Tuesday. “We are on board with continuing to work with them.”
That dialog has been drawn out for much of the past decade, to the point that last winter the environmental advocacy law-firm Earthjustice sued, asking a federal judge to compel the refuge to release a feeding-reduction plan. The long-promised plan originated from a 2007 environmental review. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed this week to hard dates for releasing the plan — a deal that puts a stay on the Earthjustice lawsuit.
By Sept. 30, the Elk Refuge will release a draft environmental assessment. Public comments will be fielded through the month of October, and then by Dec. 31 the refuge will produce a final step-down plan, a document that outlines a strategy for reducing the amount of alfalfa being distributed by half.
That plan, according to the non-legally binding agreement with Earthjustice, would govern the elk-feeding program this coming winter, an operation that typically begins in late January or early February.
“We have agreed to suspend litigation long enough to allow for them to seize that opportunity,” Earthjustice Managing Attorney Tim Preso said Monday.
If Fish and Wildlife fails to meet its commitments, the lawsuit is back on, Preso said.
During deliberations, Earthjustice drew a hard line, requiring that the refuge to act this winter.
“That was essential to us,” Preso said, “because we can’t continue business as usual with [chronic wasting disease] already in the valley.”
CWD was confirmed for the first time in Jackson Hole in November when a road-killed mule deer buck tested positive in Grand Teton National Park. The ungulate disease has no cure, can live outside its animal hosts in vegetation and soil, and ripples through deer and elk populations at higher rates when animals are concentrated.
In a worst-case scenario, the refuge’s prized winter range could become an infected area where wildlife congregate, leading to the long-term decline of a diseased Jackson Elk Herd. But the fate of the refuge still remains uncertain since CWD and wild, fed elk have never before mixed.
A mantra of the Trump Administration’s Interior Department has been deference to the states, and a paper trail suggests that the Elk Refuge has done just that while vetting and shaping the step-down plan with Wyoming.
In a 2018 email exchange activists acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, recently departed Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell expressed frustration with the process while corresponding with Fish and Wildlife’s regional refuge system chief, Will Meeks.
“I’ll try to pin [Game and Fish regional supervisor Brad Hovinga] down on what is remaining in the step down plan that the state may find objectionable,” Glaspell wrote at the time. “It’s my understanding that we have, through successive iterations of the plan, made numerous changes at the state’s request so that it is now (by some opinions) virtually toothless. I’m not sure there are any teeth left to pull, but we’ll see what Brad has to say.”
Although it’s not yet formally a public document, the refuge’s step-down plan has also emerged through FOIA requests. A 2-year-old draft of the plan outlines the strategy, and the two primary tactics are delaying the onset of elk feeding and ending the season slightly earlier.
“Because elk use of feeding grounds is a learned behavior, over time this could increase the proportion of elk that winter on native winter range, reduce the number of elk that move from the Gros Ventre drainage to [the refuge] and decrease the [refuge] wintering elk population,” the unpublished draft plan states. “The resulting shift in elk distribution would allow us to achieve the 5,000 elk objective for the refuge.”
In the Wyoming Game and Fish director’s view, a fatal flaw of the plan is a lack of flexibility.
“The thing that’s problematic about it is that any kind of a prescriptive cookie-cutter approach that’s consistent year after year is difficult,” Nesvik said, “because weather changes and some years there’s less forage and some years there’s more forage.”
Glaspell — whose successor has not been named — has said that under no conditions will the refuge turn off the alfalfa pellet dinners cold turkey.
“We are not advocating starvation,” he said in a 2018 interview. “Never have, never will, and that’s the bottom line. If and when we start moving forward with any of these plans, it’s not like we flip the switch and everything’s different on the landscape tomorrow. It will be a very slow process where we make tiny steps, and then we review the impact.”
Nesvik’s chief concern was not the elk, but the effect dispersing animals will have on Teton County ranches and other private land.
“In Rocky Mountain National Park, the elk are out grazing in the lawn in front of Pizza Hut,” Nesvik said. “We don’t think that’s a great situation for wildlife in Jackson.”
“I don’t see a solution to that in the current plan,” he said.
Nesvik’s take is that the Elk Refuge’s goals of 5,000 elk and less feeding are achievable, but he added that both himself and his staff are unclear how the federal wildlife refuge is going to get there. Currently, there are around 11,000 animals in the Jackson herd and over the last decade a record-high proportion of those animals have been drawn to the refuge. When the feed spigot closes, the theory goes, those animals will fan out, and spend the winter instead in places like Spring Gulch.
“You have to have landowner tolerance [to do this], and I don’t see how you can prescribe that,” Nesvik said. “There are some landowners who may be interested in some kind of incentive, but others, frankly, there’s not enough money that it’s going to make a difference to them.
“We’re talking about high-value property,” he said, “where they don’t want an extra 300 elk for the winter.”