Wyoming Game and Fish complaining again this winter about wolves at Gros Ventre River feedlots

1-13-2002, update 1-17

For the third winter, some Wyoming Game and Fish personnel are complaining about wolves at the state elk feedgrounds up the Gros Ventre River.

There are three feedgrounds where part of the Jackson Hole elk herd are fed hay. Uppermost in the drainage is "Fish Creek," middle is "Patrol Cabin," and the fartherest downstream is the Alkali Creek feedground.

Game and Fish would like to evenly distribute the elk at the three feedgrounds, but they are complaining that the elk are bunching up at the middle (Patrol Cabin) feedground because it is easier to elude wolves there. State game warden Bill Long said that the department was trying to move elk from Red Rock Ranch (private property) to the Alkali Creek feedground, but was having trouble because the wolves are "stationed" between the ranch and the feedground, deterring the movement of elk.

Long also told the Jackson Hole News the wolves were killing an elk an day, a point generally confirmed in the News by federal wolf manager for Wyoming, Mike Jimenez. Jimenez told the News that research over the last 2 years in the area, showed one wolf killed 1.8 elk every 30 days.

Wolves in the area are the 12 members of the rejuvenated Teton Pack, 5 wolves from the Gros Ventre Pack, and 2 wolves from the new Gros Ventre pair, which will probably become a new pack next spring.

Last year the count of elk in the Jackson Hole herd was 13,000 after the elk hunt was over. Game and Fish objectives are 11,500 elk.  Over the winter of about 5 months, about 150 elk would be killed by wolves if, indeed, they take one elk a day. These figures are higher than the recent Yellowstone winter study, however, where intense observation of 3 wolf packs, with a total number of wolves twice as high as in the Gros Ventre, killed 35 elk in 30 days.

Long told the News that "if the wolves start impacting the herd, it will jeopardize hunting season length."

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the Northern Rockies discounted what Long said. Bangs said wolves control their density by establishing territories larger than needed to feed themselves, and that there wasn't much room for more packs in the Greater Yellowstone area.

Some comparative figures: about 900 large animals, many of them elk, were killed in vehicle collisions in Jackson Hole last year. Some estimates are that 50% more are killed, but not officially recorded. The annual elk hunt takes about 3000 elk from the Jackson Hole herd. Bangs, in the News article, also pointed out that cougar kill, on the average, twice as much prey as wolves do.

Many people take a completely different view than Long. The state feedgrounds have long been criticized for promoting the spread of disease among the elk by means of unnatural winter concentration and for preventing the historic re-establishment of elk migration from Jackson Hole into the Green River Basin. The National Elk Refuge, which the wolves do not use much, faces similar criticisms, although hay feeding was abolished some time ago in favor of alfalfa pellets which can be dispersed more widely over the ground than hay.

In what might appear hypocritical, in a separate article in the News, Long criticized the 16-year-old practice of feeding much of Jackson Hole's meager deer herd by private parties in the Solitude sub-division just south of GTNP. Long told the News that the feeding created a unnatural situation and would attract predators, which might harm children.

The Solitude sub-division occupies an old ranch. It is mostly old growth cottonwood and coniferous forest just east of the Snake River. There are a number of large homes on acreages. Human disturbance of wildlife, is from my observation, limited because about half of the homes are not occupied on any given day. Deer are abundant in the sub-division as are moose. Last winter there were unconfirmed reports of wolves in the area, and a cougar was suspected of killing a dog.

Oddly enough the Game and Fish newsletter, “Wyoming Wildlife News”, (March-April 2000), in an article titled, “Feeding Wildlife: A Recipe For Disaster” said that feeding wintering wildlife attracts predators, fosters the spread of disease, disrupts wildlife social structure, reduces vegetation to bare soil in feedlots, and isn't ethical.

I don't know why Game and Fish thinks it can have it both ways -- they're against feeding, except where they do it, and then they complain about predators taking elk where have created an unnatural concentration, even though the local elk population is above the Department's population target.

Nevertheless, this seems to be an annual controversy, I think borne of the fact that it is traditional for some to hate wolves, and logical consistency doesn't get in their way.

Update 1-17: Here is an article from the 1-15 Jackson Hole News about Wyoming's long-standing, and increasingly controversial winter elk feeding program. 

Elk fatten on state dole. Despite warning citizens not to feed wildlife, Game and Fish dishes it out.  By Whitney Royster.

My thought is the system is so ingrained it will be impossible to change until a disease is spread though the artificially concentrated elk herds and kills 90 to 95% of them.

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