When the mighty elk herds of the West were facing the possibility of extinction from over hunting, settlement and neglect a century ago, people in Jackson, Wyoming, stepped forward and began what has turned out to be a profound biological experiment.
They offered food to the straggling survivors.
The Jackson herd, now tens of thousands of animals strong, became the foundation for a resurgent elk population. After the federal government stepped in to run the feeding system in 1912, a self-reinforcing loop of tourism, hunting, ranching and politics emerged. Having lots of elk in one place where humans would feed them, year in and year out, gradually became a goal in itself, shrouded with complex motives and enshrined by time.
“Habit became tradition; tradition became culture,” said Bruce Smith, who served for 22 years as senior biologist at the National Elk Refuge here, operated by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
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 (CWD), 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 72km 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.
But alternatives to feeding — should a judge order it stopped — have grown more complicated. The valley floors that the elk once used as migration corridors have largely been developed. A boom in oil and gas drilling east of Jackson has created a powerful constituency that wants elk kept on the refuge, out of the way. About 25,000 people tour the refuge each winter and spend money in town when they come.
“It’s like a tar baby — nobody can figure out how to let go of it,” said Bradford Mead, a fourth-generation rancher who is convinced that at some point the feeding must end.
That, all sides agree, would be painful medicine for one stark reason: Fewer elk would, or could, survive, though no one knows for certain what a sustainable number might be. A smaller elk herd would raise the question of whether other parts of the ecosystem have perhaps become dependent. Wolves hunt elk calves and bears, upon emerging from hibernation, sometimes scavenge dead elk.
Then there is the question of what responsibility people have for the system they created.
“We trained them to come,” said Christine Skilton, a sales associate at Images of Nature, a gallery in Jackson that sells nature photography, including pictures of elk.