PINEDALE – Wyoming Game and Fish went to work last week to sort out the dilemma of the expiration of its Dell Creek winter elk feedground.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal ruled on Sept. 21 in a case involving three of 22 Game and Fish feedgrounds that the Game and Fish’s special permit to base the feedground’s corrals and sheds on Bridger-Teton National Forest’s public lands. Her ruling for Dell Creek was that the Game and Fish’s 2017 permit expired when the state wildlife agency did not officially reapply to extend that permit.
The Dell Creek elk feedground is located in BTNF near Riling Draw at the edge of the Gros Ventre Mountains in Hoback Basin. Family ranches and private property are adjacent.
On Monday, the solution was announced – Wyoming Game and Fish has asked the Forest Service for a one-winter permit for Dell Creek feedground’s 2021-2022 winterfeeding season. The elk are fed bales of hay daily by a feeder with a team of workhorses; there are two covered hay stackyards, a corral for the horses and a tack shed.
“Game and Fish believes (Judge Freudenthal’s) recent court decision provides clarity in what was required to continue feedground operations at Dell Creek, and we’re interested in a pathway forward,” said Richard King, chief of the Game and Fish Wildlife Division.
Game and Fish is committed to maintaining feeding at Dell Creek “and is not intending to propose a closure,” public information officer Sara DiRienzo said on Monday.
The Forest Service must still approve this permit.
Dell Creek has seen a steady increase in elk attendance in recent winters with more cows, calves and spikes coming to the feedground when snow covers their forage, often by Thanksgiving. The feedground was originally permitted to feed about 250 elk; last winter Game and Fish counted 529 animals.
“We’re planning to continue our operations for this year and will exercise best practices for elk feeding at Dell Creek, just like we do with all other department-operated elk feedgrounds. That includes beginning feeding as late as possible, patterning feed to spread out elk and ending feeding as soon as reasonable,” King said.
In Hoback Basin’s snowy, frigid winter climate, that could run from November through April some years.
Western Watersheds Project and other conservation groups have legally challenged BTNF and the U.S. Forest Service for allowing Game and Fish continuing to feed elk trapped by winter and cut off from traditional migration routes due to human development.
While concerns of brucellosis transmission are one major reason in the more recent past to keep elk separate from livestock on private property, elk with no access to winter forage damage private haystacks as well. Game and Fish compensates landowners complying with hunting privileges for confirmed damages.
Some experiments to adjust feeding patterns for example east of Hoback Canyon toward Hoback Junction, where elk that are not fed often come down to crisscross the highway, commuterss have noted.
Game and Fish operates some feedgrounds – such as the McNeel feedground by the Hoback River near Bondurant – on leased private property. Others on public lands require permits from the federal management agencies. There are increasing calls for deeper environmental analyses of the public land where elk feeding takes place.
Earlier this year, Game and Fish kicked off public meetings to shape future longterm elk-feedground management plans. The steering committee consists of 13 Game and Fish personnel and representatives from the National Elk Refuge, BTNF, Bureau of Land Management and Grand Teton National Park.