But both carry brucellosis
Part 2 of a 3-part series examining winter, wildlife, & livestock
JACKSON, Wyoming––North of Yellowstone National Park, more than 5,000 Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers have since 1997 taken turns defending bison migrating out of the park in late winter into Montana.
Inspired by the memory of cofounder Rosalie Little Thunder, 1950-2014, the Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers continue earlier efforts made by members of Earth First!, the Fund for Animals, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Humane Society of the U.S., as each organization sought somewhat less successfully than Buffalo Field Campaign to overcome the political influence of ranchers’ alleged fear that the bison might infect their cattle with brucellosis.
Grass the real issue?
All but eliminated among domestic cattle throughout the U.S., brucellosis remains endemic among the Yellowstone National Park bison and elk herds, but no cases found among livestock have ever been identified as having spread from bison.
Bison advocates tend to believe the real issue is ranchers’ fear that bison will compete with cattle for grass and water.
National Elk Refuge
South of Yellowstone, a comparably intense but much less publicized perennial conflict involves bison competing with elk for fodder handouts on the National Elk Refuge, near Jackson.
“When the National Elk Refuge was established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1912,” summarized Matthew Brown of Associated Press in 2007, “the feeding of elk began the same year. As elk hunting gained popularity, bringing streams of wealthy outsiders to Jackson every fall, the feed grounds helped ensure an ample supply of the animals.”
Since then, Brown explained, the feeding program has grown to include delivery of as many as “eighty semi-trailer loads of alfalfa pellets each winter, according to federal documents and former refuge manager Barry Reiswig. In recent years, a separate feed line was established for bison to keep them from out-muscling elk. Bison eat up to 20 pounds of alfalfa a day, versus about eight pounds for elk.”
An estimated 1,250 bison competed for food handouts with elk at the National Elk Refuge in 2007. Since then, hunting and culling instituted in 2008, killing an average of about 220 bison per year with a high of 300 in 2014-2015, have cut the winter bison population on the refuge to circa 500.
But the National Elk Refuge hosted 8,390 elk during the winter of 2015-2016, the highest number since 1998, according to refuge manager Steve Kallin, 68% above the refuge population goal, and including about 80% of the estimated regional elk population.
At that, the Jackson-based advocacy group Concerned Citizens for the Elk contends that the elk were underfed.
“Elk are tough and a lot of them winter through,” veterinarian Ken Griggs told a Concerned Citizens for the Elk gathering in March 2016, “but the ones who don’t usually are the young.”
Griggs has contended since 1980 that the National Elk Refuge should begin feeding elk earlier in the winters and feed them more.
High survival rate
Responded Mike Koshmrl of the Jackson Hole News & Guide, “The survival rates of the National Elk Refuge’s winter residents contradict claims of starvation. Monitoring over the last 33 years has found that just 1.5% of all elk die in a typical winter; for calves, the rate is at 3.6%. When severe winters hit Rocky Mountain elk herds that make a living on natural winter range,” in contrast to those who are fed, “a 20% rate of death is not uncommon,” according to National Elk Refuge biologist Eric Cole.
Meanwhile, Koshmrl pointed out, “Higher numbers of elk and the longer feeding seasons they trigger can have the opposite effect, causing diseases that lead to death. That was the case a year ago, when twice as many calves as normal —about 8% of the total––perished. The main cause was foot rot, a bacterial infection not found in elk herds who range free in winter.
“Testing over the past three decades has found that on average 27% of feed ground elk carry brucellosis,” Koshmrl mentioned.
However, since an experimental vaccination program underway since 1985 produced questionable results, “The Jackson elk herd and other herds nearby that congregate at winter feed grounds will no longer be vaccinated for brucellosis. Instead of receiving vaccinations, elk herds are being fed in a checkerboard pattern to reduce clustering, and are being weaned off hay earlier in the winter.”
The low-density feeding method reportedly reduces elk-to-fetus contact by up to 70%, Wyoming Department of Fish & Game brucellosis feed ground habitat program director Brandon Scurlock told Koshmrl, “is very cheap, and is already being used at all but ‘three or four’ of Game and Fish’s 22 feed grounds,” Koshmrl wrote.
“We can’t do this on all sites,” Scurlock said. “Like South Park feed ground south of Jackson: it’s immediately adjacent to cows, so we need to continue feeding those elk as long as we can,” to keep the elk away from the cattle.
Similar issue in the Alps
Essentially the same issue, but involving bovine tuberculosis rather than brucellosis, has cropped up in Germany since 2013.
Reported ProMED-mail of the German situation in both March 2013 and March 2016, “The role of wildlife as bTB reservoirs has become a matter of discussion between farmers and the organized hunters. During the winter months, red deer are kept and fed in enclosures. This leads to rather crowded conditions and a massive increase in the deer population and to weaker deer, since animals who would otherwise die somewhere in the Alps during the winter are kept alive and might become an ongoing source of infection.”
In some instances the same pens used to feed red deer during the winter are used in summer to house young cattle while they become acclimated to Alpine habitat.
“Food buried in snow”
While Winter Storm Goliath killed cattle and sheep in December 2015, the effects of the winter of 2015-2016 on wildlife became evident somewhat later.
Reported Ryan Summerlin of the Post Independent, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, on February 11, 2016, “A harsh winter is pushing wildlife toward desperation as their food is buried under snow, and the next best option is the haystacks that ranchers intended for their cattle.”
Mule deer, already in a decade-long regional decline, were expected to be especially hard-hit.
“I’ve just returned from a tour of the area, and based on what I saw, we will likely see some significant impacts to wildlife,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife Regional Manager Ron Velard told Summerlin. “But people need to understand that wildlife has been experiencing and surviving severe weather for eons without human intervention.”
Even owls struggled
Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association vice president Tom VonDette, of Rifle, Colorado, told Summerlin that feed set out by ranchers for cattle was often the only feed elk were finding. “It’s really hurting the deer,” VonDette added, “because they don’t have a chance once the elk move in,” while predators were converging on the feeding sites––and the cattle, as well as their usual prey––because that is where the deer and elk congregated.
Nanci Limbach, executive director of Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation, in Silt, Colorado, told Summerlin that her organization had noticed “an unusual increase in dead owls,” possibly because the rodents upon whom owls feed were inaccessible, tunneling through thick snow rather than surfacing.
Wolves killed 19 elk in one night
Long-smoldering resentment of predators in general and wolves in specific among hunters and ranchers was whetted after wolves killed 19 elk in just one night at the McNeel Elk Feedground near Bondurant, Wyoming.
Wolves were not involved, but also denounced, following disclosure that 33 elk had died in separate incidents at the Bullwhacker feeding station maintained by the Idaho Department of Fish & Game in Warm Springs Canyon west of Ketchum.
Eleven elk were killed by pumas, while 22, mostly calves, “were trampled by other elk or starved after they were unable to get to the feed,” reported Greg Moore of the Idaho Mountain Express.
The toll included about one elk in six served by the Bullwhacker feeding station.
Indictment of feeding elk
The McNeel Elk Feedground killing “was blown up as an example of the threat that re-introduced wolf populations in the American west present to game and livestock,” wrote IndefinitelyWild columnist Wes Siler.
But it was actually an indictment of feeding elk, Siler explained.
“Studies that have gone on for Yellowstone over the years, looking at elk kill success rates, show that during very mild winters, when elk are in great condition, wolves are successful only about 18% of the time. When you have a very severe winter, when elk are starving and may be stuck in deep snow, you might see a success rate of about 28%.”
“If you draw in so many elk together,” Center for Biological Diversity wolf program organizer Amaroq Weiss told Siler, “that really increases the risk of elk spreading disease to each other, and concentrating prey in that way is like a buffet, proven to attract predators of all kinds—wolves, bears, mountain lions, you name it.
“It ties into understanding why wolves target animals that are more vulnerable,” Weiss said. “They want to make it more likely that a hunt is going to be successful, and less likely that the wolves are going to end up badly injured or killed in procuring the food that’s necessary for their survival.
“If wolves find themselves in a position with a number of very vulnerable prey, they will kill more than they can eat at the moment. But, they will keep coming back and finishing that food source off.”
Hunting industry grew from elk reduction
While the state of Wyoming today feeds elk and encourages hunters to shoot wolves wherever they are not federally protected, to help boost elk abundance for hunting, much of the state’s elk hunting industry ironically resulted from elk population reduction campaigns undertaken decades ago on behalf of ranchers.
Recently explained National Parks Traveler editor Kurt Repanshek, “Interior Secretary Oscar Chapman was quite clear in his negotiations with Wyoming officials in 1949 and 1950,” to create Grand Teton National Park, “that the expanded park’s enabling legislation banned hunting other than the elk reduction program sought by the state as part of a compromise to create the enlarged Grand Teton,” through a merger with the Jackson Hole National Monument and private lands donated to the federal government by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Two separate coalitions on March 24, 2016 filed lawsuits seeking to reverse a National Park Service decision to allow the state of Wyoming to permit hunting, not only of elk but of other species, on inholder property within the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park.
Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Defenders of Wildlife, and EarthJustice are bringing one of the two cases; the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and National Parks Conservation Association are bringing the other.
Meanwhile, ruling on behalf of the Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project, and the Center for Biological Diversity, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras on March 30, 2016 held that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Park Service had violated the Endangered Species Act in September 2013 by allowing elk hunters to kill four grizzly bears during the annual Grand Teton National Park fall elk hunt.
(See also If “your ass is grass,” ranchers lost their butts in 2015-2016 and End of PZP program means more people could eat a horse.)