U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Releases Final Environmental Assessment to Guide Management at National Elk Refuge
Adaptive strategies aim to encourage natural wildlife behavior, reduce reliance on supplemental feeding, protect native habitats and address serious disease threats
For Immediate Release
December 31, 2019
DENVER – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today released a final Environmental Assessment (EA) and final Bison and Elk Management Step-down Plan (with an addendum) to guide future management at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. These documents support the Service’s ongoing planning and management efforts to ensure the refuge maintains healthy native habitats and sustainable wildlife populations. The Step-down Plan provides a structured framework that refuge staff and partners can implement over the next five years to achieve measurable progress towards the objective of reducing reliance on supplemental feeding.
The final Step-down Plan does not aim to reduce the total number of elk in the Jackson herd. Rather, the plan aims to gradually reduce the number of wintering elk that rely on artificial feeding on the refuge.
Reducing both the number and concentration of wintering elk on refuge lands can help to reduce wildlife disease threats, lessen or prevent habitat degradation, and yield positive impacts for other native wildlife. Reduction in supplemental feeding will also encourage natural elk behavior.
The primary strategy that will be employed to achieve sustainable wintering elk numbers on the refuge includes shortening the feeding season. These actions will be implemented, as appropriate, over the next five years. During the initial two years of Step-down Plan implementation, the Service will place emphasis on ending feeding early to achieve the goal of reduced elk-feed days and bison-feed days.
During the first year of Step-down Plan implementation, the Service will work with stakeholders, including state and federal partners, local community groups and individuals, to develop appropriate management strategies to address any potential conflicts on private lands should elk wander off the refuge in winter. The final Step-down Plan outlines several options that may be considered, such as incentives, fencing, hazing and hunting, however, our first step will be to seek input from stakeholders.
Data gathered during the Step-down Plan’s five-year implementation will also inform future planning as the Service is committed to continuously evaluate when revisions and/or updates to the 2007 Bison and Elk Management Plan and associated National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance are needed.
The Step-down Plan’s target of 5,000 wintering elk on refuge lands was developed with our conservation partners. There are currently an estimated 11,000 elk in the Jackson herd and upwards of 6,000-7,000 elk winter on the refuge.
Annual start and end dates of supplemental feeding depend upon a number of factors, including: elk and bison numbers on the refuge; elk and bison distribution; temperatures; snow conditions; and the availability of standing natural forage. Supplemental winter feeding of elk on the refuge began in 1910 to reduce winter mortality. While supplemental feeding has been a longstanding practice on the refuge, the November 2018 detection of chronic-wasting disease in a mule deer near the refuge’s boundary has renewed a sense of urgency to adjust elk management practices.
The Service intends to begin implementation of the final Step-down Plan in 2020 and commits to keeping the public informed about future updates and involvement opportunities. The Service’s actions and decisions related to supplemental feeding will continue to be informed by current data, science, and continued coordination and collaboration with local, state and federal partners, including Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The final EA, associated Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) and final Step-down Plan are available on the refuge’s website.
The National Elk Refuge was established in 1912 to provide, preserve, restore, and manage lands for wintering elk, birds, and other big game animals. Today, the refuge contains over 24,500 acres of wetland, grassland, sagebrush, forest, woodland, and other habitats. It provides visitors with opportunities for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, photography, environmental education, and interpretation, and remains an iconic national wildlife refuge destination for visitors. It is one of over 560 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. To learn more about the National Elk Refuge, visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/National_Elk_Refuge.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen in the West, visit our website, or connect connect with us through any of these social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and Instagram.
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