Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Wolves chase Gros Ventre elk

By WHITNEY ROYSTER - Star-Tribune environmental reporter
Jim Laybourn, Star-Tribune correspondent

JACKSON -- Again this winter, it appears wolves are having an impact on elk herds in the Gros Ventre area. But how much of an impact -- and whether the impact is positive or negative -- is up for debate.

"I don't think it's a lot different than what it has been," said Bernie Holz, wildlife supervisor with the Pinedale office of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "The wolves are moving those elk around, and we end up with most of the elk on a given feedground."

Wolves have typically zeroed in on elk in the Gros Ventre, and Holz said Game and Fish knows from tracks that they have been run off of elk feedgrounds. He said wolves did not chase elk eight miles down to a ranch where they recently mingled with cattle, but wolves have chased elk for short distances, which may be a factor in their ultimate down-country migration.

"Some follow it naturally down to the (National Elk) Refuge every year," Holz said.

Typically, elk end up on the Patrol Cabin, the middle of the three state-run feedgrounds up the Gros Ventre. And two weeks ago, elk showed up on a ranch about eight miles down-valley from the feedgrounds, prompting Game and Fish to begin supplemental feeding to keep elk and cattle separate. The incident caught the attention of the state veterinarian, who aims to test the cattle herd for brucellosis.

Ranchers have pointed to the incident as reason to continue elk feedgrounds. Those operations have come into question as Wyoming lost its brucellosis-free status in 2003, likely after elk on a feedground transmitted the disease to nearby cattle. Brucellosis can cause cattle to abort and can cause undulant fever in humans. Ranchers say without feedgrounds, more elk will wind up in cattle feedlines looking for food.

But others say any interaction between wolves and elk is likely positive for the ranching industry, as it disperses elk, thus lowering the incidence of brucellosis. The disease is more prevalent in elk on feedgrounds, as transmission is more likely there.

Meredith Taylor with the Wyoming Outdoor Council said the ultimate outcome could be a "win-win" for wildlife and ranchers.

"We all want to see Wyoming regain its brucellosis-free status, and wolves may be part of that solution by spreading the elk out," she said. "The ranchers' role in this plan is to fence off the small area where they feed their livestock or find more suitable pasture for them out of the Gros Ventre valley to winter. We're all in this together and want to see a positive outcome to this problem for all involved."

Doug Hare, manager of the Red Rock Ranch, which is just a mile from Alkali, the lowest Gros Ventre feedground, said he has heard wolves this winter, but it is not a dramatic increase over past years. "Have I seen an increase in activity since last year? No," he said. "Has it noticeably decreased? Probably not." Still, he said there were 600 elk that came through the ranch in under 20 minutes earlier this winter, and he has spotted wolves within 100 yards of a ranch cabin.

In past years, Game and Fish and Gov. Dave Freudenthal, have urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to relocate wolves that are pushing elk off of feedgrounds, as it increases the likelihood of brucellosis transmission to cattle. The Fish and Wildlife Service declined, saying, in part, "We are not prepared to routinely relocate wolves found on or near the numerous elk feeding grounds in the state..."

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