From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 5, Number 18 - July 28, 2005
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Elk plan migrates south

by Cat Urbigkit

The environmental impact statement for elk management on the National Elk Refuge focuses on the impacts of various management proposals to lower elevation lands in Sublette County, since management on the refuge could result in elk migrating to this area.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service has published a draft Bison/Elk Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park and John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway in northwestern Wyoming.

The Jackson elk and bison herds comprise one of the largest concentrations of elk and bison in North America, with an estimated 13,500 elk and more than 800 bison, the EIS stated.

Elk are the priority species on the refuge, since it's elk that the refuge was created for and is the only species named in the refuge's enabling legislation.

Winter elk feeding began in Jackson Hole in 1910, and in 1912 Congress allocated funding to feed the elk and purchase land for a refuge.

In 1975, the 18-head Jackson bison herd began foraging on the elk refuge, and by 1980 had begun using the elk feedlines in winter. That herd now totals 800 head and uses the feedlines every winter.

The EIS examines the impacts of alternatives within two geographic areas. The primary analysis area is the primary habitat of the entire Jackson elk herd. The secondary analysis area includes all of Sublette County and lands located as far south as Highway 28 and Fontenelle Reservoir. The EIS uses this area to assess impacts because several of the alternatives could result in the migration of elk south into the Upper Green River Valley and onto the desert as a result of decreased winter feeding on the refuge.

"The secondary analysis area consists of lower elevation winter elk range in Sublette County, along with higher elevation migration corridors between the Gros Ventre and Green River drainages. Although the amount of migration that might occur is unknown, the potential effects of increased elk wintering in this area are analyzed."

The EIS examines six alternatives:

Alternative 1 - No action or no change from current management.

Alternative 2 - Minimal management of habitat and populations, with support for migrations. Under this alternative, feeding would be phased out over 10-15 years and the number of wintering elk on the refuge would be about 1,200-6,000 animals. The goal would be little active management.

Alternative 3 - Restore habitat, support migration and phase back supplemental feeding. This would result an estimated 1,000-2,000 elk wintering on the refuge. Supplemental feeding would be phased out over 10 years until feeding would take place only during the severest winters.

Alternative 4 - Restore habitat, improve forage and phase back supplemental feeding. This is the federal agencies' proposed action. Up to about 5,000 elk and 500 bison would winter on the refuge, but winter feeding would only occur in about five of 10 winters.

"The prevalence of brucellosis in the elk and bison herds as a result of high concentrations would be slightly reduced, and Wyoming Game and Fish Department personnel would be permitted to use Strain 19 to vaccinate elk, although efficacy would likely be low," the EIS stated.

Alternative 5 - Restore habitat, improve forage and continue supplemental feeding. This alternative would involve heavy management of bison and elk and refuge habitat. Efforts to minimize disease outbreaks would include spreading out feed and moving feed locations. Strain 19 would be used to vaccinate elk while RB51 would be used to vaccinate bison.

Alternative 6 - Restore habitat, adaptively manage populations and phase out supplemental feeding. This alternative focuses on adaptive management, with emphasis on providing standing winter feed rather than supplemental feeding.

The proposed action would achieve a target winter population of elk on the refuge below 5,000 and a bison population of 500. Elk harvest would initially be increased to reduce herd size, and then would consist of 300-400 elk annually, which is a 33 percent reduction of the current harvest. Both bison and elk would be hunted on the refuge.

If the proposed action is implemented, and large numbers of elk migrated south of Jackson Hole and were not shortstopped by state feedgrounds, "grazing pressure in native grassland habitats in the Pinedale and Big Piney Ranger Districts could increase."

On other federal lands, "grazing pressure on native grasslands and sagebrush shrublands would increase in the Green River Basin and the Red Desert," the EIS noted. "Although federal and state lands in the Green River Basin could accommodate more elk in some areas, habitats on federal and state lands in their current condition and use levels would not be able to accommodate the numbers of elk that now winter on state feedgrounds in the Green River Basin plus some of the elk now wintering on the National Elk Refuge and on state feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre River basin."

The EIS noted, "Within the secondary analysis area in Sublette County, ongoing and future subdivision and development of agricultural lands could disrupt migration routes and reduce the availability of elk winter range in the Upper Green River Valley."

The EIS stated that most wolves and grizzly bears would benefit "due to higher elk and bison mortality and wider distribution of carcasses during years when the refuge did not feed."

The EIS also examined whether its proposed action conflicts with any other agency plans or policies. While the plan complies with Teton County's comprehensive plan, it does conflict with Wyoming Game and Fish Department policies.

According to the EIS: "Restoring elk migrations to historical wintering areas in the Green River Basin and the Red Desert would conflict with current land uses and policies of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department."

According to the EIS, WG&F doesn't approve of the restoring migrations idea for a number of reasons:

Lingering questions about whether elk from Jackson Hole historically migrated to the Green River Basin and the Red Desert;

Doubts about whether a portion of the elk population could be 'trained' to migrate to the basin;

The attraction of elk onto state feedgrounds, making feedground management more difficult and costly;

No plans to phase out feeding on state feedgrounds;

Large elk movements from the Jackson elk herd to other herd units would complicate herd management;

The reality that elk would be drawn into cattle feedlines on private lands in key parts of the potential migration corridor;

The potential for elk with high levels of brucellosis to intermingle with cattle on feedlines and other situations; the need for the Bureau of Land Management to re-allocate forage; and

The likelihood of increased wildlife-vehicle collisions on highways in the Green River Basin.

Open houses from 2 - 5 p.m. and formal hearings from 6:30-9 p.m.will be held Aug. 30 at the Virginian Lodge, 750 Broadway, in Jackson and Aug. 31, at the Holiday Inn Convention Center, 900 E. Sunset, in Riverton.

To download the EIS go to http://www.fws.gov/bisonandelkplan. The deadline for public comments is Sept. 30. Submit comments to: Bison and Elk Management Planning Office, National Elk Refuge, P.O. Box 510, 675 E. Broadway , Jackson, Wyo., 83001, or e-mail: bison/elk_planning@fws.gov.

For more information call 307-733-9212.

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