By Mike Koshmrl
Jackson Hole Daily
Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — Environmental groups are suing the National Elk Refuge for business-as-usual elk feeding and failing to implement a 12-year-old plan.
On Monday, the environmental law firm Earthjustice — which has sued over Elk Refuge feeding before — filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club.
The suit claims “severe disease threats” and focuses on anticipated effects from chronic wasting disease, a lethal and incurable cervid sickness that showed up not far from the refuge boundary last fall.
Earthjustice had signaled that the lawsuit was coming by publicly writing Elk Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell in December, asking him to release a “step-down” plan detailing how the refuge will reduce elk numbers and feeding.
“There’s no real secret here,” Earthjustice managing attorney Tim Preso told the Jackson Hole Daily. “The letter asked them to do something and, as they have done for the last 11 years, they didn’t do anything. Now we’re asking a court to order them to take action that they promised.”
Earthjustice’s lawsuit asks a judge to force the Elk Refuge’s hand, by giving it 30 days to produce a detailed plan to reduce elk feeding.
The refuge completed an environmental impact statement in 2007 that prescribed management for the Jackson elk and bison herds jointly with Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest. A central component of the plan was to winnow wapiti wintering on the refuge down to 5,000 animals — a number that natural forage could sustain in a winter of average severity, models predicted.
Instead, elk numbers have increased as the herd has shifted its distribution to rely more on the refuge than ever before. During last year’s mild winter, despite skipping supplemental feeding, the refuge for the first time hosted almost the entire herd. This winter, however, refuge numbers fell off.
Chronic wasting disease’s arrival in Jackson Hole adds urgency to what many wildlife activists and scientists perceive as an impending ecological disaster. The incurable prion disease can live in soil and grass, cannot be removed from an outdoor environment and was found for the first time in the valley last fall in a road-killed mule deer buck just hundreds of yards from the refuge’s northern boundary.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission is to manage for healthy habitat and healthy wildlife,” Sierra Club employee and elk feeding critic Lloyd Dorsey said Monday. “They’ve got hoof rot on the refuge, which is deadly. They’ve got brucellosis on the refuge, which makes elk and bison chronically ill. And now CWD is in the valley, which is always lethal for deer, elk and moose.
“The best time to change management that concentrates elk in unhealthy densities is before a lethal disease arrives,” Dorsey said. “It’s high time now to implement the change that they committed to in 2007.”
The 20-page legal complaint, which draws on internal communications acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, describes the state of Wyoming as the primary force slowing the release of the refuge’s step-down plan.
“The service’s delay in issuing the long-promised plan has been largely due to the service’s deference to objections by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department,” the lawsuit says. “The Service has thus effectively given the Wyoming Game and Fish Department a veto over issuance of the supplemental feeding phase-out plan.”
Elk feeding is a highly controversial and politicized issue, and decisions about releasing a step-down plan are not being made locally.
When asked about the status of the step-down plan Monday, Glaspell said, “I don’t know.”
Despite the lawsuit, Preso said he hopes the long-promised plan will be produced outside of the courtroom.
“I’m sure that the refuge and the people of the Fish and Wildlife Service don’t want their legacy to be management that created a chronic wasting disease toxic zone,” Preso said. “I’m hopeful that this will nudge them into action. They have the opportunity to respond to this by doing what they should have done 11 years ago.”
Glaspell affirmed that internal discussions are underway.
“We’re still sorting out what exactly is going on and whether we’re engaged in a formal lawsuit,” the refuge manager said. “I met with Tim [Preso] in Bozeman, and I thought we had a very productive conversation and I think we generally share the same objectives. I don’t view him or his organization’s folks as adversaries. We’re just trying to figure out how to get this [plan] pushed through.”