A conservation coalition today filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to challenge the agency’s weak new plan to phase down elk feeding on the Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge, citing the plan’s inadequate response to the urgent threat of a chronic wasting disease outbreak among the Refuge elk population. Wildlife officials detected chronic wasting disease in Jackson Hole for the first time in November 2018, and biologists believe it is inevitable that the disease will eventually enter the Refuge, where it threatens to spread widely among elk densely congregated on winter feedlines and infect the Refuge environment itself with contagious disease materials.
“The Service has failed to meet the challenge of this key moment when we still have an opportunity to take some preemptive action to prevent the worst consequences of chronic wasting disease in Jackson Hole,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “The National Elk Refuge is supposed to sustain healthy populations of native wildlife, not spread infection of lethal disease.”
The lawsuit challenges a FWS “Step-Down Plan” issued on December 31, 2019 that proposes a “principal strategy” of delaying the onset of winter feeding each year to teach a new generation of elk to look elsewhere than the Refuge for winter forage. But the new plan delayed implementation of that strategy for at least two years in response to objections from the State of Wyoming, which for decades has opposed changes to the elk-feeding program.
Recognizing the wildlife disease threat posed by the Refuge’s winter elk-feeding program, FWS promised to issue the Step-Down Plan by 2008, but delayed for more than ten years due to disagreement between federal and Wyoming officials. FWS’s delay in issuing the Step-Down Plan ended only after conservationists sued the agency in March 2019 to demand release of the long-overdue plan after chronic wasting disease was confirmed in Jackson Hole.
As with that earlier lawsuit, Earthjustice filed today’s lawsuit on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Refuge Association. The lawsuit charges, among other things, that FWS’s Step-Down Plan ignores advice the agency received from its own former Chief of Wildlife Health, Dr. Thomas Roffe, who warned FWS that even full implementation of the new “Step-Down Plan” “still leaves a substantial risk of catastrophic disease propagation” in the Jackson elk herd.
“The detection of chronic wasting disease on the doorstep of the National Elk Refuge should be setting off alarm bells for everyone who treasures the Refuge and its wildlife,” said Pete Nelson, director of federal lands for Defenders of Wildlife. “We cannot afford further delay from the Service in addressing this existential threat to the Refuge. It is crucial that we take decisive action, to protect elk and the integrity of the refuge now, before it is too late.”
“As long as feeding continues as usual, risk to the Greater Yellowstone region will increase,” said Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter. “Chronic wasting disease is already infecting wildlife in Jackson Hole. We cannot afford to wait any longer, let alone two or more years, before even starting to encourage elk to relearn their natural winter foraging behaviors and reduce the threat that this disease will mushroom into an all-out epidemic.”
“It is long past time for the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a real plan with specific steps and a reasonable time frame to implement phasing out feeding the elk at the refuge,” said Geoffrey Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “Chronic wasting disease just keeps getting closer and this has gone on far too long.”