From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 4, Number 50 - March 10, 2005
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

North Piney feedground "closure" dubbed a success

by Cat Urbigkit

The brucellosis report presented by environmental groups to Governor Dave Freudenthal last week claims that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's phase-out of the Bench Corral elk feedground has been a success.

In reality, what it's been is a controversy. The controversy was originally caused by WG&F's own actions, but the blame can now be shared with wolves.

According to the report released by the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition: "In 1995, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department effectively phased-out the North Piney elk feedground. After years of scientifically assessing the residual forage amounts on over 33,000 acres of native winter range on public BLM lands in the Bench Corral elk feedground area, the WG&F decided to phase out the high-altitude, deep-snow and expensive North Piney feedground. The BLM lands at the lower elevation east of the North Piney feedground are summer cattle allotments, but WG&F determined that there was more than enough residual forage left to winter all the elk from both the Bench Corral and North Piney feedgrounds after the cattle had grazed their permitted season. The WG&F has long known that dispersing elk out on native range is the best way to solve the brucellosis problem in elk.

"The phase-out of North Piney worked. The elk at North Piney were baited during the winter of 95-96, and the elk willingly followed a bait line to the lower-elevation, wind-swept native ranges. This relocation of elk occurred in, literally, a matter of days," the environmental groups stated.

"Since that winter, the elk of the North Piney country have migrated down-country onto the Bench Corral range every winter, proving that elk migrations can be restored if the elk are able to find forage at the end of their journey. During some winters, elk are fed at Bench Corral, but this project is a good step towards allowing elk to continue on their journey to their ancestral ranges across the Green River to the canyons along the Little Colorado Desert."

WG&F's action to bait elk off the North Piney feedground was not in compliance with what federal land managers intended. An environmental assessment was supposed to have been completed before any action was taken. At that time, there was a congressional standoff over federal budget negotiations and federal government employees were furloughed during the government shut-down.

When federal employees returned from furlough, they learned that WG&F had acted quickly, already baiting elk onto Bench Corral. The deed was done and the elk had learned the route. North Piney elk have "quit" that feedground every year since, although in recent years they have quit with wolves in tow. Elk are fed at North Piney every year, so the feedground has not actually been closed.

The environmental groups' report calls for closure of the Bench Corral feedground as well as closure of three Boulder-area elk feedgrounds. The report does not focus on the impact such action would cause to private ranches in the affected areas. Many of the feedgrounds were established in order to keep elk off private property, haystacks and cattle feedlines.

As for the closure of the Muddy Creek, Scab Creek and Fall Creek feedgrounds, the report noted: "This feedground phase-out project is not without its challenges, though, since there are private ranchlands and livestock that must be protected from commingling with elk while still encouraging elk to migrate to the desert.

"But, as we have learned from previous projects like the 1995 phase-out of North Piney and elsewhere in Wyoming, ranchlands and livestock can be protected with a combination of tools already in hand, such as stackyards to protect hay, elk-proof fencing of livestock feedlines on private property, and hunter management areas to use hunters to harvest and displace elk from private lands," the groups' report stated.

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