From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 6, Number 48 - February 22, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

G&F presents final plan for Hoback elk herd
Feedground elimination, relocation not viable
by Joy Ufford

Hoback Basin cattle ranchers surveyed about elk feedgrounds in the Basin oppose relocating or eliminating them, feel that enhancing elk’s winter range in the Basin is nearly impossible and last but not least, unanimously support the use of Strain 19 elk vaccine.

Those comments about brucellosis management options at Dell Creek and McNeel feedgrounds were voiced this winter in discussions with the Wyoming Game & Fish in ranchers’ kitchens and two public meetings at the Bondurant School.

The end result is the final Hoback Elk Herd Unit Brucellosis Management Action Plan (BMAP), presented by G&F officials to the public Tuesday night at the Bondurant Elementary School.

The document was presented by G&F BMAP biologist John Henningsen to the small group present which included local cattle ranchers and two Greater Yellowstone Coalition associates.

The plan, which will be reviewed annually, summarizes existing data about elk and brucellosis management in Hoback basin, incorporates agency and rancher feedback, develops management action options and shows how each can be applied specifically in the Hoback EHU, Henningsen said.

At the end of the presentation, Lloyd Dorsey with Greater Yellowstone Coalition asked Henningsen why only ranchers were included in the Hoback elk plan, to which Henningsen replied that BMAP meetings were open to the public.

Dorsey asked if it wouldn’t be beneficial to include hunters and conservation groups in making the plan. Bondurant cattle rancher Kevin Campbell responded angrily: “The ranchers are the ones that brucellosis affects, not the hunters. We’re the ones who get quarantined.”

“The elk belong to all of us,” said Dorsey.

“Yes, but this is Sublette County,” Campbell said. “This isn’t Teton County.”

Management actions

The management-action options, with a brief explanation of what makes them specific to the Hoback EHU, are:

1. Feedground Relocation: Many private-land owners also have cattle on or near their property in winter and the potential for co-mingling could increase. The Dell Creek site slows elk from drifting to Little Jennie Ranch feed lines and hay stacks. The McNeel location, leased by G&F from River Bend Ranch, was obtained in 2006 after G&F found “no suitable alternative locations for either McNeel or Dell Creek,” the plan states

2. Feedground Elimination: “This option, given current conditions and herd objectives, is probably unfeasible for feedgrounds in the Hoback EHY. Over the last 20 years, over 90 percent of the elk in the Hoback EHU have spent the winter on feedgrounds.”

3. Elk Reduction: “Reducing elk numbers on the feedgrounds ... through liberalized hunting seasons could allow more flexibility to pursue (other) options.”

The EHU quota is 1,100 elk with quotas for 400 at Dell Creek, 600 at McNeel and 100 elk not wintering on feedgrounds. Recent winter surveys showed that Dell Creek had 297 elk and McNeel had 598. (A helicopter survey of elk wintering off feedgrounds in the basin was cancelled but G&F personnel are aware that several small herds are living off feedgrounds this winter.)

4. Cattle Producer Change of Operation: Brucellosis transmission potential ... and testing requirements associated with cow/calf operations would be eliminated if all cattle operations were yearlings, spayed heifers and/or steers,” the plan states.

Currently there are only two year-round cattle producers in the Basin – the Little Jennie Ranch, which has land adjacent to the Dell Creek feedground and runs about 1,000 head of breeding cattle, and the Campbell Ranch, which is also a year-round cow-calf operation.

Henningsen and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services’ (APHIS) official Owen Henderson told those at the meeting Tuesday night that there are potential financial sources to help ranchers making operational changes.

“NRCS is more than willing to participate in these options,” Henningsen said.

Henderson clarified: “Only ... people with a valid herd plan” could apply for money to change operations.

“You mean, like buy me a ranch in Arizona?” Campbell asked.

5. Fencing: Elk-proof fencing around feedgrounds themselves, such as Muddy, are a large-scale project needing agreement by landowners, private or public. Installation of G&F-provided elk panels has been a tool in the Basin to contain hay stacks; seasonal maintenance of the panels is borne by the rancher.

6. Habitat Enhancement: The BMAP looks at enhancement of spring and fall range as a potential habitat improvement.

“The emphasis here has to be on transitional ranges,” Henningsen said. “Producers know that the Basin here is a heavy snow area so there’s not a lot of winter range.”

7. Acquisition/ Conservation Easements: This is not an affordable or available option in Hoback Basin at this time, he explained, but G&F is open to “any brilliant ideas.”

8. Continuation of Strain 19 Vaccination of elk calves: This program began in 1995 and since, about 66,000 elk have been vaccinated on all but one of the state’s 22 feedgrounds – Dell Creek – which serves as a “control population.”

Brucellosis seroprevalence data, which shows presence of disease antibodies rather than culture-positive results, show that the Dell Creek and Greys River feedground elk show “no significant difference.” The Dell Creek elk, of which 37 adult females were tested in January, showed a seroprevalence for the third year of 17 percent. Numbers aren’t available for McNeel, which hasn’t been trapped and tested since 1998 mainly due to lack of trapping facilities, according to G&F Feedground Manager Gary Hornberger.

Other Actions

The best feedground management practices include feeding hay on clean snow, minimizing feeding duration, preventing elk and cattle co-mingling and allowing scavengers and predators to enter feedgrounds to clear up dead elk and fetuses that might be brucellosis-infected.

Brucellosis surveillance through trapping and testing is carried out on four to six feedgrounds per year, according to the plan, to assess and test for the disease. Dell Creek is monitored every year; McNeel hasn’t been monitored since 1997-98.

Annual progress reports to the Governor’s Brucellosis Team, ongoing and new research, and information and education to the public are the final recommended management actions.

Hoback Elk Herd Unit

The Hoback Elk Herd Unit (EHU) includes the upper Hoback River watershed with the boundaries being Hoback Rim to the south, the drainage divide between Hoback and Green rivers to the east, the drainage divide between Gros Ventre and Hoback rivers to the north and Dell Creek, Cliff Creek and the drainage divide between the Greys and Hoback rivers to the west.

Because of the feedgrounds’ proximity to cattle operations and potential for elk co-mingling with cattle, Dell and McNeel feedgrounds are considered “unique and (were) established to address a site specific management problem,” according to a BMAP draft.

Because Hoback Basin usually records deeper snow accumulation within its boundaries than other elk herd units, elk are less likely to move out of the Basin once enough snow falls, it says. Very limited supply of native winter range also keeps Hoback elk close to their respective feedgrounds although much of the EHU offers spring, summer and fall range.

Dell Creek feedground

The Dell Creek feedground is at the mouth of Riling Draw on U.S. Forest Service land, located up Dell Creek Road several miles east of Bondurant. The G&F herd quota there is 400 elk. Dell Creek feedground is the only one of the 22 state feedgrounds that has never vaccinated its elk herd with Strain 19 because of its relative isolation from other feedgrounds. Its herd serves as a “control population” for comparison with other vaccinated feedground elk.

McNeel feedground

The McNeel feedground is located by the Hoback River and across from the Bondurant Post Office on land owned by River Bend Ranch. The feedground, named for former ranch owner Bob McNeel, is being used under a 25-year lease signed in 2005 between G&F and owner Gil Ordway. Ranch managers Bill and Tony Saunders run cattle as a commercial yearling operation with no winter feeding, which can reduce risks for brucellosis transmission between elk and cattle during early spring months.

McNeel feedground is the only one in Wyoming on private property. Its location helps keep elk away from the highway and slows elk movement to the Franz feedground in the Piney Elk Herd Unit.

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