WY BHA Elk Feedground Comments

To Mark Gocke, and whom it may concern:

Thank you for giving Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) the opportunity to comment on this important elk feedgrounds planning and management effort.

BHA’s mission is to ensure North America's outdoor heritage of hunting and fishing in a natural setting, through education and work on behalf of wild public lands and waters. Our membership is over 30,000 strong, which includes roughly 600 from the Wyoming chapter. Wyoming BHA (WY BHA) sets its priorities by following those of the organization, and these are: access & opportunity; public lands & waters; fair chase; programs (Armed Forces Initiative, Collegiate Program, and R3/Hunting for Sustainability). Elk feedgrounds relate to the first three topics, and as such, our concerns, constraints, and solutions will be listed under these headers.

What are your biggest concerns surrounding feedgrounds

Access & Opportunity

One of Wyoming BHA’s primary realms of focus as an organization is ensuring that public lands, waters, and wildlife remain public. To that end, we are concerned about the potential for new or altered tag allocation systems that would heavily favor private landowners, created in response to increased numbers of elk wintering on, or causing damage to, private property. An example of this would be New Mexico’s elk draw system, where hunters (including and incumbent Senator) have repeatedly sought reform for the “EPLUS” system. Critics of EPLUS primarily argue that it is too difficult to understand the program’s goals and tag allocation methods, that private landowner tag allocations are too high (13,000 EPLUS versus 22,000 in the public draw system), and that allowing landowners to earn revenue by exploiting a public resource, elk, on their private property is a system akin to the “king’s deer” that runs directly counter to the North American Conservation Model of wildlife management.

Additionally, WY BHA does not wish to see excessively long shoulder seasons utilized, nor unsustainably high numbers of tags allocated in units where elk feedgrounds use will be phased out. Montana’s shoulder seasons in the last several years have received criticism for not being effective enough in addressing elk congregation on and damage to private lands, i.e. not addressing the core issue of a need to increase hunting access for management purposes, as well as causing unnecessary stress to elk during times of year their body conditions are poor, particularly gravid cows, which results in elk dying “for the wrong reason, in the wrong location” while decreasing hunter opportunity.

A rapid increase in short term opportunity does not guarantee sustainable long term opportunity. The issues surrounding elk management in southwestern Montana are an example of what we do not wish to see happen. Managing hunters’ and outfitters’ expectations is difficult, but critical to ensuring our wildlife management is proactive, not reactive, and science-driven, not steered by selfish desires.

Public Lands & Waters

Another concern Wyoming BHA has is the need to ensure there is ample healthy, i.e. suitable and sustainable, winter range for elk. Private lands have historically played a critically important role in Wyoming. Secondarily, availability of suitable winter range relates to the dynamics of deer-elk ecology, as well as density dependent diseases. There is a concern that that elk may begin to outcompete already-vulnerable mule deer populations (or pronghorn, moose, bison, and/or bighorn sheep) if not enough winter range is available for all animals.

If elk are to be dispersed off supplemental feeding areas, we must ensure there are not only areas of high quality winter range (in terms of nutrition, population density, and resiliency against severe weather events) available to the elk on private land: we must also proactively work to enhance winter range for elk and other ungulates on public acreage as well. This dovetails with the aforementioned concerns regarding hunting access and opportunity.

It is worth noting that simply increasing acreage of suitable winter range for elk is not enough: we must also consider their migration routes to and from winter range, and address barriers. Thankfully, Wyoming is a leader among western states regarding the study, mapping, and conservation of ungulate migration corridors, and we have authorities such as Secretarial Order 3362 to help us address those research needs and ensuing management needs.

Third, WY BHA recognizes that no matter what strategies are selected through this planning process, this is an excellent opportunity to collect multiple years’ worth of data that will guide not only our state’s management of elk, but also our management of other ungulates and habitat. It may even inform how other states approach similar issues pertaining to populations over objective or winter range needs. These data could include: changing rates of diseases in elk, especially those considered national priorities (CWD) or density dependent diseases; changes to individual and herd level health in elk over time, including calf recruitment, maternal health, bull quality, or age classes; changes in elk use of feedgrounds or landscape-scale seasonal movements over time in response to changes in the frequency and duration of feeding; changing rates of human-elk conflict such as motor vehicle strikes; changing predator-prey ecology if elk landscape use changes. These studies’ outcomes would have important implications for hunters and hunter opportunity over time.

It is also critically important that this research, the outcomes, and the management responses are communicated clearly and timely with the public. Federal and state wildlife and land managing agencies can allow research results to slip through the cracks as “grey literature” if their public dispersal and/or opportunity for responses are not mandated by NEPA or other processes. Identifying a communications plan to complement the proposal and implementation of the final elk feedground management plan is necessary.

Fair Chase

Wyoming BHA also firmly believes in following Fair Chase principles, per Boone & Crockett, both when afield and in management decisions.

The decision to feed elk was made during a time when citizens, though good their intentions may have been, knew far less about wildlife management principles. Namely, they lacked a longer term perspective that would have aided in identifying the risks for major die-off events, including disease outbreaks, poor nutrition, and weather patterns. Additionally, ivory poaching was a significant issue in Jackson Hole at the turn of the 20th century. Relative newcomers to the area did not have the scientific situational awareness then to understand that their presence and their land use patterns were likely having an adverse effect on their beloved neighboring elk. They were simply doing what they thought was most “helpful” for an acutely-suffering group of wildlife they valued for many reasons.

Thanks to the North American Conservation Model framework, as well as decades of scientific research and myriad managerial efforts, we are much more well informed today about what truly constitutes acts of kindness towards elk. Neither creating unnatural patterns of congregation and movement among elk at a landscape scale nor risking entire herds by subjecting them to conditions with increased risk of disease transmission constitute a “kind” act; these are not ethical choices. We have a moral obligation to act upon what we know now: that continuing to supplementally feed elk risks their wellbeing in the long-term – which, by extension, will risk hunter opportunity as well – and our management policies need to be modernized to reflect that.

What are the constraints or barriers to future elk feedground management?

Access & Opportunity

One barrier to enhancing hunter access and opportunity is the tendency for elk to congregate on private land during winter. Although we do have preexisting programs such as Access Yes, it may take some trial-and-error to see whether Access Yes as it is currently funded and operated will be sufficient in terms of meeting hunting opportunity/management needs and private landowner needs. It may be necessary to enhance funding or create a parallel program in response to changes in elk population objectives or land use.

Public Lands & Waters

Another current and likely future constraint – which may be the “end-all, be-all” constraint regarding elk feedgrounds phase-out management – is funding. Each agency involved in this process will, of course, have to identify and utilize their own funding mechanisms. With regards to what onus may fall on WGFD, however, it is not clear where additional funding will come from, nor what financial burden would fall to private landowners or potential partnering agencies or other groups.

Fair Chase

As has been discussed at length during the shared learning process, sudden cessation of elk feedgrounds use would likely have devastating effects on this region’s populations. At the same time, among other concerns, allowing feedgrounds to continue being utilized increases the risk of disease to both individuals and herds. We have an obligation to make decisive, science-based choices to sustain healthy elk populations, but a significant barrier to this will be pushback from those who have very valid concerns about the impact of phasing out feedgrounds on their livelihoods in the short and long term, be that stockgrowers, outfitters & guides, or others.

What are the solutions to this complex issue that address those constraints or barriers?

Access & Opportunity

To address the likely need to increase access to private land, as aforementioned, an application or expansion of the preexisting Access Yes program should be considered. Maintaining contact with both Access Yes participants (landowners and hunters/users alike) and stakeholder group participants over time in order to garner input about its successes and shortcomings would be beneficial. Contacting neighboring states, particularly those with elk populations known to be over objectives in select regions, about their strategies to address issues rooted in private land access limitations would be helpful. Allocating additional depredation tags on the basis of formally assessed landowner need, then allowing resident hunters to apply – for a fee, with those fees specifically applied to elk feedground stepdown program costs – to a randomized lottery system that would give them a private land tag (with parameters per landowner wishes) is one option. This is akin to Montana’s Hunt Roster program. Both hunters and landowners should be extensively consulted with and have their concerns addressed while potential solutions are storyboarded, should access problems arise.

New Mexico’s EPLUS and Montana’s push towards longer shoulder seasons moving into public acreage may be considered case studies in what not to do. We are fortunate to have the landowner tag system we do in Wyoming: both hunters and landowners consider it to be reasonable, fair, and effective. Placing an emphasis on prioritizing resident opportunity, as well as continuing to capture non-resident dollars through applications and license sales, will garner favorable responses from resident hunters.

Additionally, given that elk population objectives in this region are calculated on the basis of having winter supplemental feeding available to elk, it is reasonable to expect that there will be a future need to reduce some herds’ sizes if feedgrounds are phased out and winter feed on private and public acreage is insufficient in quality or quantity. While we, of course, welcome increased hunter opportunity in the form of temporarily increased tags, we also urge decision makers to make those increases incrementally, in order to protect both longer term opportunity and shorter term herd resiliency. 

Public Lands & Waters

The recently introduced Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act could help address some of the funding issues surrounding pertinent disease research and management needs. As proposed, among other benefits, the CWDRMA would offer $70 million in funding pertaining to federal-state interagency partnerships and research grants. Although funding is limited to CWD topics, Wyoming is uniquely poised to contribute immensely valuable data to this program, including lessons learned through National Elk Refuge and potential elk feedground stepdown planning and implementation.

Another funding mechanism to consider is the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA). GNA allows the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to partner with cooperating state, county, and federally-recognized tribal entities to achieve cross-jurisdictional restoration goals. Historically, GNA has been used for timber sales, hazard tree removal, and fuels management projects aimed at addressing fire and/or silviculture needs. WGFD may want to consider reaching out to the USFS and BLM to assess whether interagency vegetation management needs could be achieved through GNA projects in areas that are or could be suitable winter range for elk. Using GNA frameworks will also reduce some of the burden for project management and implementation on WGFD, without removing the agency from the process entirely.

Partnerships with large non-profit organizations with programs specific to habitat restoration and management could also be considered. These may include: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, or Pheasants Forever and its subsidiaries (e.g., Working Lands for Wildlife). Smaller non-profit conservation organizations with more limited budgets, like Wyoming BHA, could be integrated through “boots on the ground” activities. Our funding, advocacy, and labor contributions to the Raymond Mountain WSA access project in 2021 are one example of this.

With regards to concerns about science communication, partnerships with non-profit organizations, as well as academic entities and private businesses (e.g. print and digital media companies), will prove critically important. This is another realm in which Wyoming shines: we have the dedicated work of research and communications professionals with the Wyoming Migration Initiative and the Monteith Shop/Wyoming Co-op Unit to lean on, in addition to the communications work done by WGFD itself.

Fair Chase

Tempering private interests and private gains in favor of keeping our public resources (including wildlife) public, as well as their management science-driven rather than personal opinion-driven, will be of utmost importance in order to maintain the hunting opportunities we’ve come to enjoy in Wyoming, in both the short and long term. Other stakeholders may argue in favor of unsustainable short term opportunity meant to drastically reduce elk population numbers, or argue that “more elk is always better” in the long term. Neither current science nor Fair Chase ethics indicate these are true.

This is a balance that WGFD knows is difficult to strike, but is well versed in achieving despite constraints and barriers. In public lands management, there is an oft-repeated truism that if everyone walks away from a cooperative process slightly disappointed or frustrated, but without any unacceptable outcomes for them on the table, the process was a success. This will certainly be the case regarding this process—but WY BHA applauds WGFD for proactively establishing a process involving direct, frequent opportunities for public input regarding the future of elk feedgrounds in Wyoming.

Fair Chase “demands restraint and self-reliance, aligns with North American wildlife laws, and is in service to conservation.” It is Wyoming BHA’s belief that the use of elk feedgrounds does not reflect Fair Chase ethics, per what scientific research shows are the potential and actual effects of supplemental feeding on elk herds and individuals alike. To continue feedgrounds use as normal without the planning and implementation of a stepdown plan is not in service to conservation. It is Wyoming BHA’s hope that WGFD will continue to engage with emergent research and stakeholder groups, and make choices through a phased stepdown plan that will protect the long-term health of elk populations (and other ungulates) in our state while maintaining current or near-current hunter opportunities.

Thank you again for your time, and for your consideration of Wyoming BHA’s concerns and proposed solutions. I encourage you to reach out to me via email or phone call at your convenience if you have further questions regarding our input.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth Lynch

On Behalf of the Leadership Team

of the Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers

 

About Elizabeth Lynch

"Adult-onset" hunter, wannabe flyfisher, dirt nerd, always hungry, public lands enthusiast.

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