JACKSON, Wyo. A Wyoming Game and Fish Commission member thinks the Jackson Hole elk herd should have more animals not fewer, as the federal government would like.
Clark Allan said the threat of wildlife diseases doesn't justify reducing elk numbers. He also said that more elk are justified because of wolves and grizzly bears.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed reducing elk numbers in the Jackson area by about a third, in part through reducing wintertime feeding at the National Elk Refuge.
The concern is that diseases like brucellosis and chronic wasting disease spread more easily among artificially concentrated elk. Brucellosis, which can spread to cattle and cause them to abort, re-emerged in cattle in western Wyoming in 2003.
Chronic wasting disease, which causes fatal brain deterioration in elk and deer, has spread rapidly in recent years east of the Continental Divide. Some warn of a catastrophe if chronic wasting reaches the National Elk Refuge or western Wyoming's 22 state-run elk feedgrounds.
"Everybody's afraid of some boogeymen," Allan said. "What we have to avoid is to have the cure be worse than the disease."
Allan was one of about 50 people who attended a public hearing on the Fish and Wildlife Service's draft elk and bison management plan.
He said the effect of predators on the elk herd needed to be better understood before decisions to reduce the herd are made. He also said there is a conflict between the federal goal of maintaining certain numbers of grizzly bears and wolves while reducing elk.
The federal government is also considering five other proposals for bison and elk numbers in Grand Teton National Park, National Elk Refuge and surrounding national forests. Some call for steeper reductions and a faster phase-out of feeding, while one proposal would maintain current numbers.
Shane Moore, a wildlife biologist from Jackson, said wasting disease was a more serious threat to elk than brucellosis. He said the disease might take 20 years to arrive in the area, but there was no reason to think that it wouldn't.
"Quality habitat is our best hope," he said. "Supplemental feeding is our worst nightmare."
Hunters and ranchers have generally favored the proposal that calls for maintaining the most elk and continues supplemental feeding. Most environmentalists and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have backed a proposal that would take the most extreme stance on feeding by phasing it out within 15 years.
The plan recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would reduce wintertime elk numbers on the refuge from about 7,500 to no more than 5,000. The plan would also provide feed for the elk, on average, about every other winter.