WASHINGTON (CN) – Four conservation groups claim in court the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of a revised permit to allow the continued feeding of wild elk in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest is endangering the herd and elevating its risk of getting and spreading a chronic wasting disease.
In a June 5 complaint filed in Washington, the Sierra Club, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Western Watersheds Project and the Gallatin Wildlife Association say that the negative effects of feeding the wild elk hay in centralized locations are well-known.
Artificial feeding stretches back to the early 1900s and continues today to discourage wild elk from pillaging privately-owned haystacks on private land, the 28-page complaint notes.
However, feeding hay to the Jackson elk herd – one of the largest in North America – prevents the animals from spanning out in pursuit of natural forage, which the groups say leaves elk and deer more concentrated, and susceptible to disease outbreaks.
“Artificial winter feeding creates unnaturally dense concentrations of elk, causing deleterious impacts to elk and the surrounding environment,” the complaint says.
“In particular, continued feeding at Alkali Creek Feedground is highly likely to cause or contribute to an outbreak of lethal chronic wasting disease, the equivalent of ‘mad cow’ disease in deer and elk, or other diseases, which would devastate elk populations and cause cascading impacts to the function and stability of the GYE,” ” the lawsuit states, abbreviating Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Based on a consensus view in the scientific community, the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to start phasing out the heavily criticized practice under the 2007 Bison and Elk Management Plan.
But the plan lacked an end date and their sister agency — the U.S. Forest Service — recently approved a request by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission that would extend an artificial winter feeding permit to the Alkali Creek Feedground in the Bridger-Teton National Forest through 2028.
“The issue we’re challenging is the idea and practice of ‘supplemental feeding,’ which is a euphemism. It’s actually artificial feeding of Jackson Elk herd, the largest Elk herd in the U.S.,” said Bill Eubanks a partner at Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks LLP in Fort Collins, Colorado. “When you artificial feed these populations by giving them human made food, you’re putting these high concentrations of elk together and thus spreading disease much more quickly.”
When the defendants did their analysis of the feeding proposal, they failed to adequately consider the harmful effects of what it now widely considered an outdated practice, Eubanks said.
The practice has been around for a hundred years, but it has no place in the present, he continued.
The lawsuit says the Forest Service “failed to fully present the actual purpose and need for the action to the public, precluding the public’s ability to be fully involved in this highly significant decision; declined to rigorously explore and evaluate all reasonable alternatives to the proposed action; fell far short of taking the required ‘hard look’ at the contributions of the preferred alternative to the risk of the introduction and spread of CWD in the Jackson elk herd; and eschewed its obligation to offer a meaningful analysis of the cumulative impacts of the region’s feedgrounds on forest and wildlife resources,” the complaint states.
“Instead of looking at these actions, the Forest Service didn’t really look at these U.S. departments’ actions. They approved the practice without any conditions. The practice will cause major effects in the area,” Eubanks said.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to set aside the permit, and require the defendants – U.S. Forest Service chief Thomas Tidwell and U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue – to produce annual reports examining the management practices of all artificial feedgrounds.
There is no trace of lethal chronic wasting disease in the Jackson elk herd yet, but it has been found in deer about 40 miles away. If it reaches the herd, the conservation groups say the disease could contaminate and devastate the entire ecosystem.
“Although the specific mode of transmission has not been identified, evidence indicates that the disease is transmitted through contact with infected animals or carcasses, and through contact with soil, plants, or feed contaminated with the urine, feces, and/or saliva of infected animals,” the complaint says.
Greater concentration of the herd because of artificial feeding increases the likelihood of infectious contacts.
“CWD infection rates of well over fifty percent have been documented within confined elk and deer populations,” the lawsuit says.
The groups say no vaccine or cure exists to treat chronic wasting disease, but according to the complaint, allowing the herd to spread out is one way to mitigate risk to the herd and the ecosystem.
The conservation groups accuse the U.S. Forest Service of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by discounting the danger of lethal chronic wasting disease, failing to consider alternatives, precluding public comments before signing off on the extended permit, and ignoring the 2007 Bison and Elk Management Plan.
A spokesman for the Forest Service said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.