Court Ruling Is a Mixed Bag in Elk Feedgrounds Case

         Each year, thousands of elk and hundreds of bison rely on feedgrounds throughout much of Wyoming to survive when other forage is otherwise unavailable.  The State of Wyoming first provided supplemental feed to elk in the early 1900s to prevent large-scale die-offs during harsh winters.  More than 100 years later, the State continues to utilize feedgrounds as an important tool to reduce damage to haystack yards and winter pastures on private lands, reduce the potential transmission of brucellosis to livestock, prevent human-wildlife conflict in certain areas, and prevent starvation of elk and bison during Wyoming’s harshest winters.  

         State-operated feedgrounds are located on Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, State, and private lands.  As with many wildlife management decisions, the practice of supplemental feeding has been quite controversial, and use of the feedgrounds has been the subject of multiple legal battles.  In 2020, several environmental groups challenged the use of three specific feedgrounds located on Bridger-Teton National Forest: Dell Creek, Forest Park, and Alkali Creek feedgrounds.     

         If the feeding program—at these three feedgrounds or other areas—is immediately halted or reduced too quickly, many elk and bison will starve, harming not only those wildlife populations but also hunters, outfitters, and guides who depend on healthy populations of these species.  Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, Jackson Hole Outfitters and Guides Association, Sublette County Outfitters and Guides Association, and Safari Club International jointly intervened to defend the use of the three feedgrounds.  The State of Wyoming also intervened as a defendant.  

         In late September 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming issued a mixed opinion which affirms the continued operation of the Forest Park and Alkali Creek feedgrounds but prevents the use of the Dell Creek feedground.  For Forest Park, the State can continue operation of the feedground while the U.S. Forest Service considers whether to grant a renewed permit for operation at the site.  For Alkali Creek, operation can continue at the site on an emergency basis, but the Forest Service must conduct certain analysis to comply with the court’s ruling.  And for Dell Creek, the court ruled that no operative permit exists that allows the State to continue operating at the site.  The State will have to seek a new permit from the Forest Service in order to start operations again.   

         All parties have the opportunity to appeal the district court’s decision within the next 60 days.  It is unclear whether the plaintiffs, federal government defendants, or defendant-intervenors will decide to appeal any aspects of the ruling. Stay tuned for further updates, and for updates regarding a similar case that challenges the use of a federally-operated feedground in the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming.  

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