Elk at Alpine, WY are crowded by development and will join in the feeding operation just down the road when winter deepens.
As our horse-drawn sleigh glided out onto the National Elk Refuge north of Jackson, Wyoming, 2,000 elk, about a third of what is expected to eventually show up, pawed at the snow for the grass beneath or rested contentedly in small groups.
It all changes with the next storm though. The rest of the herd will pour onto the Refuge and with over 6,000 hungry elk, refuge personnel will feed them for the rest of the winter.
The scattered groups will coalesce into long lines of shoulder to shoulder elk, eating from stringers of pelletized hay. Visually, it is striking and thrilling to see this many elk up close and thousands of people ride the sleighs each year to witness it. Biologically, managers fear it is a ticking time bomb.
Elk feeding almost always has its roots in human development. We build cities on winter range or choke off migration routes with interstates and elk begin to stack up in places where they have never wintered before and can’t winter without assistance. The snow is too deep, the forage too thin, they are too close to human interests or all three. Eventually, they find every available haystack, take up residence in backyards and get hit by trains, semi-trucks and cars.
Such a scenario quickly becomes intolerable and we turn to agricultural practices to remedy it. After all, we have been feeding livestock for thousands of years, why not elk? Within a few years, we develop the perception that hay can substitute for winter range and feeding becomes an annual operation.
On the surface, feeding the elk, barnyard style, does seem like a reasonable solution. We can have our cities and highways and elk get fed so where is the problem?
The issues surrounding elk feeding are socially, philosophically, and biologically complex. First, who will pay for it? Wyoming’s 22 official feedgrounds service over 20,000 head at a cost of almost three million dollars each year. Proponents of feeding will quickly point out that feeding is less expensive than paying for damage to stored and standing crops, but the program still runs in the red.
Elk hunters often appreciate feedgrounds because the number of elk that survive the winter can be, and usually is, far higher than the native range would support. For a wildlife agency to suggest that reduced elk numbers are preferable to feeding is tantamount to heresy for some of their strongest constituents.
Philosophically, there is the argument of “unwilding” our elk. Our sleigh driver made it a point to tell us just how used to the sleighs the elk become and how quickly. Elk habituated to humans in any way are one step closer to domestication, a knife thrust to the very heart of wildness.
Biologically, the ticking time bomb is wildlife disease. Tuberculosis, hoof rot, brucellosis, pasteurella, scabies, chronic wasting disease and more are good reasons to fear feeding. Anytime wildlife of any sort is concentrated and come into nose-to-nose contact, the risk of disease transmission grows exponentially.
Elk are our heritage. We should do whatever we can to protect them and ensure their place in the future. The question is, does feeding elk help or hurt that objective in the long run?
I’ll try to answer that question next week.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho