WGFD continues feeding elk across Wyo
Pinedale – With each of Wyoming’s feedgrounds currently operating this winter, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Feedground Supervisor Gary Hornberger notes that the WGFD continues to seek ways to continue feeding elk while operating feedgrounds most efficiently as possible.
“In the face of rapidly increasing hay prices, we have worked hard to find ways to make the feedground program as cost-effective as possible, while continuing to take care of our elk that attend WGFD feedgrounds,” he says.
This year, Hornberger notes that feeding started in some areas toward the end of November but was not necessary until the beginning of the year in others.
“This year, based on the average of the last several years, we have had pretty typical start dates,” Hornberger says. “Right now, there are elk still on native winter ranges, but as snow depths increase, most elk will come to the feedgrounds.”
Some efforts have taken place to move elk off of private property, to minimize damages to rancher’s stored crops and to discourage elk from commingling with cattle for disease concerns, more specifically, brucellosis.
WGFD Brucellosis, Feedground, Habitat biologist Eric Maichak indicated, “The WGFD continues to vaccinate elk for brucellosis on feedgrounds and takes every opportunity to make improvements to reduce the disease where we can. The prevalence of brucellosis averages 26 percent of the population of elk that attend feedgrounds in northwestern Wyoming.”
Brucellosis levels are relatively stable among elk attending feedgrounds.
“We continue to implement disease reduction management strategies to diminish prevalence of this disease,” he comments.
One program the WGFD has implemented to save costs, conserve resources and reduce disease transmission involves a novel feeding technique.
“On some feedgrounds with lots of space, we began dispersing hay over a larger than normal area in a checkerboard pattern,” Maichak explains. “We’ve found that feeding in this manner significantly reduces disease transmission.”
“Through research, we found that brucellosis transmission can occur when elk are actually eating hay,” he continues. “Feeding one or two lines of hay congregates the elk, as they tend to walk up and down the line of hay, resulting in higher contact rates with the bacteria.”
However, when hay is dispersed over the feeding area in a checkerboard fashion, Maichak says, “Elk don’t have a single line to walk and have reduced chances of contacting an aborted fetus and contracting the disease.”
A study conducted by Kari Boroff with the UW Department of Applied Economics found that low density feeding is the most cost effective brucellosis management strategy among other management techniques investigated, including vaccination and test and slaughter.
The study evaluated the cost to benefit ratio of several available disease management techniques.
The timing of feeding is also important.
“We start to see brucellosis-induced abortions in elk during the third trimester of pregnancy, which begins around February,” Maichak says. “Abortions are most likely in March and April and May.”
“We found a direct relationship with the length of the feeding season and brucellosis prevalence of elk on those feedgrounds,” he notes. “On average, the longer elk are fed into the spring, the higher their rate of brucellosis. This makes sense because we found abortions occurring in March, April and May, so the longer elk remain concentrated on feedgrounds, the more likely they are to encounter an aborted fetus and get the disease.”
On some feedgrounds that are distant from cattle operations, the WGFD has tried to end feeding as early as possible to reduce brucellosis transmission while ensuring elk are healthy and not a threat to cattle.
“Obviously, we need to feed elk when the snow is deep, but if conditions are moderate enough to allow elk to free range, while not causing a disease transmission risk to cattle, we have some flexibility to end feeding early and reduce brucellosis risk among those elk,” he adds.
With the rise in hay prices, the WGFD has made other efforts to alleviate costs.
“Costs at the WGFD’s 22 feedgrounds have gone up quite a bit in the last several years, primarily due to rising hay prices,” he notes. “The WGFD budgeted about $2.5 million in fiscal year ‘14 for the feedground program. Most of that is dedicated to the purchase of hay.”
The WGFD also contributes to feeding operations at the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Increasing costs means that the feedground program must operate as efficiently as possible. Hornberger notes that feedground personnel continue to explore efficiencies within the program.
“The WGFD, in cooperation with land management agencies, has conducted thousands of acres of habitat treatments to provide native forage for elk around feedgrounds,” Maichak says. “These treatments can help provide alternative forage resources if they’re available to elk.”
In areas that are feasible and effective to improve habitat, WGFD has worked to increase habitat quantity and quality to improve natural forage sources.
“On many areas adjacent to elk feedgrounds, managers have completed habitat treatments and seen benefits to elk, as well as other wildlife species and cattle,” Maichak says. “However, when forage is covered in snow and inaccessible to elk, feedgrounds provide a dependable source of forage.”
Research continues to inform efforts the WGFD can take to decrease brucellosis in elk herds utilizing feedgrounds that are cost effective and return a net benefit.
Elk and brucellosis research
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, along with the University of Wyoming and other collaborators, has been conducting brucellosis research projects on elk since 2006 in effort to reduce disease transmission among elk, and from elk to cattle.
Using technologies such as Vaginal Implant Transmitters (VITs) and GPS collars, managers have found when and where elk abort – the characteristic symptom of brucellosis, and have determined areas that are of high risk for brucellosis. This information also identifies elk calving areas.
The WGFD has used findings from these projects to implement effective disease management strategies, such as low density feeding methods.