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Collateral Damage in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Unintended Consequences of an Elk Feeding Program

It was the mid-1990s, and my boyfriend and I were in the midst of a cross-country drive on our way back to college.  We stopped for a spell in the picturesque community of Kelly, Wyoming, our jumping-off point for a short backpacking trip in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  I was excited—it was my first time...

Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park, photo by Terry Tollefsbol

It was the mid-1990s, and my boyfriend and I were in the midst of a cross-country drive on our way back to college.  We stopped for a spell in the picturesque community of Kelly, Wyoming, our jumping-off point for a short backpacking trip in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  I was excited—it was my first time visiting this spectacular landscape—and a bit nervous: we were about to enter grizzly country.  We strapped our packs on, checked (perhaps more than a few times) for our cans of bear spray, and set off into the wilds. 

Soon it began to drizzle.  The drizzle became a steady rain, the steady rain a downpour.  Heads down, we trudged along as quickly as we could through a forest of swaying, creaking trees (hoping they wouldn’t fall on us) until our designated campsite came into view.  Up went the tent and we crawled inside, wet and exhausted. 

Throughout the night, the rain continued.  Sleep wasn’t deep; our leaking tent was accumulating water inch by inch, and every snapping branch made me jump.  I was convinced bears were patrolling the perimeter of our little camp clearing, and nothing my boyfriend said could convince me otherwise.  In the morning, we crawled out to a clear sky and began breaking camp.  And then: vindication.  In the mud, right by our tent, a perfect bear track. 

There is nothing like camping in grizzly country to make you feel alive.  Alive, alert, exhilarated—and incredibly blessed.


Bear Track
Grizzly Bear tracks, Photo by Kristen Carden

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, is home to a full complement of our nation’s most noble and magnificent wildlife species: grizzly and black bears, wolves, elk, moose, bison, lynx, mountain lions, and wolverines, to name just a few.  When you step into this untamed country, the presence of these creatures, and the sense that you are entering a realm where humans are no longer in charge, is inescapable.  You feel as if you have traveled back in time, to an era before cityscapes and jet engines and cell phones.  To an era where humans were part of the landscape, instead of a-part from it.  It is humbling, awe-inspiring, beautiful.

The landscape is not as untouched as it appears, however.  Man’s influence exerts itself even here, in one of our Nation’s last great wild havens.

On Thanksgiving Day, 2012, three hunters participating in an annual elk hunt in Grand Teton National Park shot and killed an adult male grizzly bear—a species protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (“ESA”)—after the animal charged them. They were hiking in forested terrain near a parking area shortly after dawn.  Biologists investigating the incident discovered a partially consumed elk carcass 50 yards away, leading them to believe that the bear was defending its food source.  Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly bears increasingly have been turning to meat as a food source as two of the species’ historic primary food resources, whitebark pine seeds and cutthroat trout, disappear from the region.  Unfortunately, this dietary shift is leading to a greater potential for hunting-related bear-human conflicts in the region—including conflicts within our National Parks.

National Elk Refuge, photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
National Elk Refuge, photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The hunters involved in the 2012 incident were participating in an annual hunt in Grand Teton National Park known as the “elk reduction program.”  This “reduction program” is an artifact of an elk feeding program on the nearby Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge and a smattering of neighboring federal and state lands.  The elk feeding program began with the altruistic purpose of providing hungry elk with a meal during the Northern Rockies’ harsh winters.  However, by virtually eliminating natural over-winter elk mortality, it has artificially inflated the elk population.  The resultant overcrowding of the winter feedgrounds has raised concerns about disease transmission—brucellosis and chronic wasting disease in particular—but the feeding program continues unabated.  Today, the elk overpopulation is extreme enough that the extraordinary step of hunting wildlife within a national park has been deemed necessary to control the population.  Unfortunately, the annual park elk hunt has increased chances for humans and bears to, quite literally, run into each other—with potentially lethal consequences.

In response to the 2012 incident, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that four more grizzly bears in Grand Teton National Park and two in the National Elk Refuge  are likely to be killed in connection with the park elk hunt through 2022, and that these killings will be exempt from liability under the ESA.  Unfortunately, in making this determination, federal officials failed to consider all of the other grizzly bear killings to which they have given the green light throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  In total, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows for the death of as many as 65 female grizzly bears in a single year—a mortality level three times higher than the sustainable mortality level for female bears set by government biologists.  This is troubling, as the grizzly bear has one of the lowest reproductive rates of all terrestrial mammals and as a result population growth for the species is quite slow.  It is also troubling because the Greater Yellowstone population is an island population, isolated from populations in Northern Montana and Canada, and there is thus no interchange between those populations to offset grizzly bear mortalities within the Greater Yellowstone region.

Elk, Yellowstone National Park, Photo by Kristin Carden
Elk, Yellowstone National Park, Photo by Kristin Carden

As Greater Yellowstone grizzlies search far and wide for new food sources, conflicts between grizzlies and humans will continue to occur.  The challenge for wildlife agencies is to find solutions that will minimize these conflicts—solutions that address the root of the conflicts.  One such root conflict is the elk overpopulation in northwest Wyoming’s winter elk feedground complex.  To this end, the Fish and Wildlife Service has committed to ending its feeding program on the National Elk Refuge.  Taking that step would substantially reduce disease threats for ungulates, protect threatened species like the grizzly bear, and lead to a more sustainable future for wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone region.  The sooner the elk feeding program is phased out, the more hospitable a home will Grand Teton National Park be for its resident wildlife, and the more likely that encounters between humans and grizzlies will involve paw prints rather than gunshots.

Blog post by Kristin Carden, North America Policy Program, SCB member and an Associate Attorney with Earthjustice.

Kristin Carden, Earthjustice
Kristin Carden, Earthjustice

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Society for Conservation Biology
The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) is an international professional organization dedicated to promoting the scientific study of the phenomena that affect the maintenance, loss, and restoration of biological diversity. The Society's membership comprises a wide range of people interested in the conservation and study of biological diversity: resource managers, educators, government and private conservation workers, and students make up the more than 4,000 members world-wide. The Society was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 8, 1985. Find out more about the inspiring history of the Society for Conservation Biology.