Wednesday, February 18, 2009

WYOMING NEWS: The Elk Winter Feeding Dilemma

When the mighty elk herds of the West were facing the possibility of extinction from overhunting, settlement and neglect a century ago, people here stepped forward and began what has turned out to be a profound biological experiment.

They offered food to the straggling survivors.

Now a new and tightening circle of challenges is closing in on the elk and the human system that has sustained them, forcing a debate over the science, emotion and economics of protecting these magnificent animals and the landscape they inhabit. At the center is a critical question: Did human kindness backfire, setting the elk up for disaster?

A federal lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of environmental groups charges that feeding the elk violates the Fish and Wildlife Service’s charter to manage refuges for healthy populations and biological integrity. Feeding programs, the suit argues, endanger the elk and create monocultures that degrade the landscape for other creatures, like birds, which can no longer nest on feeding grounds stripped of willows by the ravenous herd.

Biological threats that could devastate the elk are also looming on the horizon, especially chronic wasting disease, or C.W.D., a neural disorder that spreads by mutated proteins, not unlike mad cow disease. Chronic wasting disease, found in an infected moose last year only about 45 miles from Jackson, has moved in an inexorable line in recent years from Wyoming’s southeast corner, where it first appeared, to the rest of the state. The disease was discovered in Colorado in the 1960s.

Read the full story at the New York Times

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