If we feed elk or other big game, it is only a matter of time before diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease threaten them.
Over 10 years ago, Idaho experienced one problem with elk feeding. Brucellosis, a European bovine disease originally transmitted from exotic livestock to native elk and bison, has been eradicated in cattle. However, on elk feeding operations, where elk are concentrated on small areas, there is often a degree of brucellosis infection. It was only a matter of time before the elk returned the favor to livestock and transmitted the disease back.
In 2006, Idaho lost its brucellosis-free status, something that threatened Idaho’s livestock industry. Suddenly, it became important to control brucellosis in wild elk and further limit contact between elk and livestock and elk feedgrounds began to disappear.
Today, Idaho has only one official permanent elk feedground, the Bullwhacker site outside of Ketchum, where 200-400 elk are fed each winter. Idaho’s official policy though, is to feed big game only when an emergency warrants it. The 2016 Henry Creek Fire created such an emergency at Tex Creek and an elk feeding operation is underway there for this winter.
Disease transmission is not an idle threat or scare tactic. It jeopardizes entire herds and as Idaho found out, can put ranching industries at risk. Brucellosis though, is as much a social issue as a biological one. Not so for Chronic Wasting Disease, aka, CWD. This incurable and highly contagious big game killer has been steadily marching westward, possibly spread with the help of game ranching. Several deer and a moose have tested positive for CWD in the Star Valley area and that is at the front door of many of Wyoming’s feeding operations.
It is no exaggeration to say that the introduction of CWD into feedgrounds could be the beginning of the end of many big game herds, not just elk. From there, it could spread like wind-driven fire into herds not even associated with the winter feeding.
Feeding programs put biologists between a rock and a hard place. Feeding runs the great risk of disease and the other unsavory elements of unnatural concentrations. They can’t put the habitat genie back in the bottle though, so not feeding often means a reduction, sometimes severe, of herds to meet the diminished winter range size—unpopular with hunters and the public at large.
As is so often the case, winter feeding hacks only at the leaves of this tree of evil. The root is the unfettered development of winter range. Anywhere winter range is in prime livestock country, on private property or within oil, gas or mineral hotspots, it is at risk of eventual development or conversion to uses or activities that aren’t compatible with big game winter range. We simply can’t continue to manage elk like it was the 1950’s with 2017 resource availability.
Feeding isn’t the painless solution to lost winter range it was once thought to be. As disease becomes more common and widespread, feeding programs are like playing Russian roulette. It is a game we will eventually lose if we play it long enough.
For wildlife of all kinds to have a future, we must take the long view and that is often a hard political pill to swallow. To have the political discipline to think and plan generations down the road doesn’t generate votes and success is difficult to measure.
As difficult as it may be, the solution to having both wildlife and development isn’t winter feeding, hatcheries or even wildlife refuges. It is significant and thoughtful planning before the first shovel of dirt is ever turned.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
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