A lawsuit filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming claims that United States Forest Service officials were in violation of numerous rules — including the agency’s own — when it allowed feeding to continue on three feeding grounds in Bridger-Teton National Forest.
The lawsuit further claims allowing artificial feedingl to continue, or at the least not phasing it out, on the Alkali, Deel Creek and Forest Park feedgrounds will heighten the spread of chronic wasting disease in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Western Watershed Project, Sierra Club and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, while U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christianson and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue are named as defendants.
Artificially feeding elk has been fiercely debated for years as chronic wasting disease made its way closer to the National Elk Refuge and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Several sportsman’s groups like outfitters advocate for continuing with feeding as more elk means more available elk tags.
But opponents of feedgrounds say they could be the catalyst for the spread of chronic wasting disease. Elk from several herds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem migrate to the feeding grounds each winter to feed.
“(T)he feedgrounds at issue here are situated between these CWD endemic areas and the National Elk Refuge. Some of the area’s elk are known to share season ranges during the year and travel among different feedgrounds and the NER,” the suit says. “Moreover, large herds of Wyoming’s migratory mule deer travel annually from CWD-endemic zones through areas surrounding the feedgrounds at issue to the National Elk Refuge. The presence of a single infected elk (or deer) at the Dell Creek, Forest Park or Alkali Creek feedgrounds could, therefore, introduce this deadly disease to the National Elk Refuge, thereby transmitting it to a significant majority of western Wyoming’s elk herds.”
The always-fatal disease destroys the central nervous systems in members of the Cervidae family, which includes deer, elk and moose. It spreads through abnormal proteins called prions.
According to several studies, the disease is most prominent in deer. It’s not as frequently found in elk.
Scientists say CWD prions can persist for years in the environment and bind to the soil. They can be introduced into the soil and plants through infected animal carcasses, urine, feces and saliva.
Over 10 months last year, Wyoming Game and Fish employees worked more than 11,500 man-hours and traveled 65,869 hours at a cost of $650,610 to monitor the disease.
In October, former National Elk Refuge Chief biologist Bruce Smith called feeding grounds the “perfect storm” for the spread of CWD.
“There’s little opportunity for any animals that come in contact with each other to not become infected,” Smith told K2 Radio News in October. “They just have to have whatever an infectious dose would be.
“As more become sick, the infection accelerates. It’s like the perfect storm. You’re going to see this spiral out of control”
The former Elk Refuge biologist said there is a degree of political pressure behind keeping the elk in feeding ground areas artificially high. It’s good for tourism. Hunting guides can promise more successful hunts.