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Plus, most of the elk left the MPG Ranch during the shoulder season. They seemed to have learned that if they move near towns and subdivisions, they won't be shot.
As Jourdonnais descended the mountainside on the MPG Ranch back in early December, he noticed what proved to be an omen—something had spooked the elk herd, which moved like an undulating wave up and over the ridgetop, headed toward someone else's property. He notes that unless elk population issues are addressed at a landscape level—not just ranch by ranch—even the shoulder season won't be enough, because the elk will still figure out safe havens. "The key, to me, in elk management is all about not being predictable. You have to keep them guessing. If you establish a pattern, you're done."
This story was originally published in High Country News. Eve Byron writes from Helena, and often covers natural resource topics.
The Trouble with Wyoming
by Alex Sakariassen
Concern about the spread of disease into Montana's elk populations prompted several conservation organizations to take a rare step last month. Speaking before the state Senate Fish and Game Committee, the Montana Wildlife Federation and Montana Audubon threw their weight behind a resolution urging Wyoming to halt a decades-old practice of artificially feeding wild elk. Normally these groups wouldn't advocate pushing policy changes on other states, as their representatives acknowledged. But they regard the potential impacts to Montana wildlife and livestock as too serious to ignore.
Senate Resolution 8 comes courtesy of Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, in direct response to those fears. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department currently operates 22 feeding sites in broad tracts south of Yellowstone National Park. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service controls one more. It's a longstanding practice ostensibly intended to help offset winter range losses with hay trucks and alfalfa seed, and it has strong support among sportsmen and private landowners.
"It may be, above all else, an illustration of the power of the status quo," Phillips said during the Feb. 23 hearing. "Once you start doing something, sometimes it's hard to quit."
Part of the justification for the resolution is chronic wasting disease (CWD), a neurodegenerative affliction that causes emaciation, abnormal behavior and death in elk, deer and moose. It hasn't reached Montana yet, nor have elk at the Wyoming feed sites shown any sign of it, as Ken McDonald, chief of wildlife for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, informed the committee. However, as Joe Perry with the Montana Sportsmen Alliance testified, the disease's spread to Montana is "not a question of if this is a question of when." Given that more than 20,000 elk congregate at Wyoming's feeding sites, conditions for the disease to spread quickly are in place.
Ben Lamb, a lobbyist for the Montana Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife Federation, understands the concern about CWD. What he considers a more immediate threat from Wyoming, however, is the continued prevalence of brucellosis. Those feedgrounds are a "self-replicating pool of disease," he tells the Indy, with a brucellosis infection rate of around 50 percent. "CWD is the coming storm. Brucellosis is the storm that's here."
Phillips' resolution sailed through committee and the full Senate with unanimous support. Whether its passage will result in any tangible change remains to be seen. Phillips concedes that Wyoming may "turn a blind eye" to Montana's request. Federal officials may be more amenable, but as Lamb points out, FWS controls only one of the 23 feed sites in question. "My professional response," Lamb says of the resolution, "is I doubt this will do much to shift the debate."