Wolves, Brucellosis, & Elk

Wolves have blown elk off western Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds on numerous occasions – it’s something that we’ve come to expect with Wyoming’s protected wolf population. Jim and I learned about the 19 elk that had been killed in one night by a wolf pack on an elk feedground in the northern portion of the county before we left for a getaway with the bliss of little internet or cell phone access for three days.

We were stunned to return home yesterday to learn that the surplus kill on the McNeel feedground had made international news. People seemed to be going bonkers in all directions, including these views:

· kill all the wolves because they are killing all the elk;

· the domesticated elk no longer have wild instincts and stand around on feedlots, so it’s no wonder they were killed;

· it must have been hunters (poachers) because wolves don’t surplus kill.

I view most of the comments as oversimplified nonsense, put forth with little understanding of complexities of the situation.

Elk Feedgrounds
Elk are held at artificially high numbers in western Wyoming through a series of 22 state-managed elk feedgrounds in Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties. The feedgrounds are located on private, state or federal land, and a total of about 13,000 elk are provided supplemental feed in the form of hay each winter. Elk feedgrounds are generally closed to human access – with the exception of the elk feeder, who is a contract employee in charge of feeding hay with a team of horses or with a tractor.

There are only a couple of elk feedgrounds that can be seen from a state highway – these state-managed elk feedgrounds are not like the National Elk Refuge where you can pay to ride among the elk in a horse-drawn sleigh. The elk are not domesticated animals that have lost their wild senses, and they can be easily spooked off the feedgrounds by disturbance.

Elk and bison that inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem serve as a wild reservoir of brucellosis – a highly contagious bacterial disease that can be transmitted to humans, and cattle. In humans, it causes undulate fever, and in cattle, it causes contagious abortions. There has been a national program to eradicate brucellosis from livestock since the early 1930s. It’s why milk is pasteurized, and why federal officials long maintained a test-and-slaughter program for our nation’s cattle herds. The brucella organism is also classified as an agent of bio-terrorism.

Brucellosis is a stealth disease that can hide in an animal’s reproductive tract for years without detection. All cattle producers in this region vaccinate (and boost) against brucellosis, but with an efficacy rate of 70%, the vaccine only provides partial protection. We’ve watched our neighbors here in Sublette and Teton counties go through quarantine and whole-herd slaughter because of brucellosis transmission from wintering elk to their cattle. The thought of watching your entire herd sent to slaughter is too horrific for most ranchers to contemplate.

Closing feedgrounds
Most of the elk feedgrounds were established in the 1940s and 1950s to deal with starving elk in bad winter conditions, and to keep them away from stored hay used by ranchers to provide winter feed for cattle on private land.

To close the feedgrounds would be to face the damage caused by dispersing elk that will seek food elsewhere, as they are involved in collisions with vehicles on roadways, move to cattle feedlines and damage stored hay, transmitting disease to cattle, and the anticipated elk population reduction that will follow. So the Wyoming Game & Fish Department has focused on starting feeding later in the winter, ending feeding as early as possible, and conducting habitat improvements to provide better forage conditions for elk off the feedgrounds. The agency is attempting to minimize its feeding program. If it were as simple an issue as closing the feedgrounds, it would have been done years ago. Maintenance of the feedgrounds perpetuates the disease among elk, but spreading diseased elk across the landscape isn’t a good option either. Meanwhile, research for more effective methods to reduce the risks posed by brucellosis continues.

Wolves & Elk
Most western Wyoming elk herds are near population objectives, but some wolf advocates do not believe that wolves impact big game herds. Which is ironic, since the justification for the wolf reintroduction program was based on the need to control the park’s overabundant elk population, which it has. Yellowstone park’s northern range elk herd numbered 17,000 elk in 1995, the year wolves were released in the park. This elk herd shrunk by 2015 to just 1,130 elk inside the park, and 3,714 elk north of the park. At the same time, the grizzly bear population in the region has expanded. Predators have indeed impacted this elk population, just as they do other populations. In localized areas, the problem can be severe.

Surplus killing
Surplus killing involves a predator killing more animals than it can consume and, in contrast to those who say this is a “rare” event, it is exhibited by a variety of predators large and small around the world. From a fox in a chicken coop, to a wolf pack hitting an elk herd, it’s normal predatory behavior. Not everyday, but not rare.

A similar kill to the McNeel case took place on a Big Piney-area feedground in 2003, and there were numerous cases in the last 10 years in which wolves harassed the elk to the extent that the elk “quit” certain feedgrounds altogether. The 19 dead elk on the McNeel feedground included two adult cow elk and 17 calves – that is, yearling elk, not newborn calves. (When wolves killed beef cattle on a private ranch not far from McNeel earlier in the month, some assumed that the five calves were small animals, but they were 500-pound calves by this time of year.)

Surplus kills occur on both wild and domestic herds. A pack of wolves left a pasture of 120 Rambouillet rams dead in Montana in 2009. We’ve had surplus kills by wolves on our place too. And by a black bear, and by a mountain lion.

Wolves in the Northern Rockies reached biological recovery goals more than a decade ago, but are still under federal protection in Wyoming. Even if the state were in charge now, it’s questionable whether any action would be taken against the wolves on the McNeel feedground. But at least state officials would have options if wolves were under state jurisdiction. Right now, there aren’t any.

Those who believe the Wyoming Game & Fish will manage the species to extinction give credence to fear-mongers who thrive on controversy. They point to the fact that Wyoming would allow wolves to be killed in two-thirds of the state as proof that state officials hate this predator. In reality, the wolf population occurs in the western third of the state in an area larger than that designated as necessary in the original wolf recovery plan – and that’s where wolf harvest will be regulated and controlled. That Wyoming doesn’t want wolf population expansion to the remainder of the state is no surprise, and was never on the table as needed for wolf recovery.

Some wolf advocates do not want any wolves killed for any reason. I understand that, but they aren’t the people who experience negative impacts from wolf activity.

I don’t seek eradication of the wolf, even though wolves sometimes kill our family’s livestock. But I would like to live in an ecosystem where this species is actually managed, and I won’t have to feel jeopardized by an action I may take when involved in a conflict with the species.

9 thoughts on “Wolves, Brucellosis, & Elk”

  1. Excellent, Cat. While I would disagree on the Northern Herd, given that there were a large number of human factors as well as wolves, grizzlies & Black bears, I largely agree with what you've written. Very nicely done.

    The issue of surprlus killing isn't limited to four-legged predators either. We see multiple stories every hunting season of flock shooting, unethical behavior, etc. It's the same issue, just with fewer legs.

    Again, well said.

  2. Your last sentence touched on a problem that has not happened to me but the thought has occurred that the threat of prosecution excists should I act in defense of my livestock without prior approval on any level.

  3. Thanks to all. It's unfortunate that this event ended up being international news without placing it in a realistic context. It's too easy to get sound bites and quips from people who seem to want to be outraged about something. This is a complex ecosystem, and I hate that we forget the history that has brought us to this point.

  4. A HUGE part of this environmental controversy is caused by the limited experience and narrow perspectives on BOTH sides of the issue. Sometimes, it helps to get a broader perspective from another culture–one perhaps that has been dealing with similar issues for CENTURIES. I found it very interesting reading the runaway Chinese bestselling(and decent film, too–you can see the trailers of it on Youtube–"Wolf Totem")book titled "Wolf Totem"(VERY cheaply to be had off'n Amazon.) An example of a different cultural mindset is in the notion of "surplus killing" in the book–always viewed as a wasteful, NEGATIVE thing in Western culture, but that the Mongol nomadic herders in the book believe is simply the wolves' way of storing food for leaner times–remember in a frigid Winter environment, meat keeps very well, and wolves are far less picky than modern humans about "freshness"! Certainly this aspect of wolf behavior would be IDEAL for some specific scientific study(although I fully accept the Mongols view based on common sense and their centuries of observations….)to be continued….L. B.

  5. …..and although I am an unapologetic "wolf-hugger", I also get irked at just how unrealistic the pro-wolf side can be regarding human orchestrated wolf "control"–my personal view is that ranchers/farmers SHOULD be allowed to protect their livestock in most circumstances. Wolf lovers not wanting ANY wolves killed, hunters never satisfied even with elk or deer or moose behind every frikkin' tree, ranchers that think ALL wolves are bloodthirsty surplus killers of livestock, ALL have far too narrow a view of things. A real misnomer is the INACCURATE view of "the balance of Nature"–it would be far better to term it the "fluctuations of Nature", and it takes YEARS, sometimes DECADES to see the "balance"–it ain't gonna happen in one hunting season! YES, predators WILL limit the ungulates and other prey animals over time. EVENTUALLY, lower prey numbers allow the LAND to recover, and EVENTUALLY the predators numbers will also drop–usually by aggressive competition with each other and starvation. Whereupon the prey numbers begin to rise, and the whole CYCLE begins again. It's only been happnin' like this for a few buhzillion years. But short-sighted folks with light-switch philosophies want THEIR desires fulfilled NOW, regarding Nature and animals–NOT something you see with the philosophies of old-time nomadic pastoralists and hunter-gatherers. Wolf lover that I am personally, I often question others who proclaim(correctly) that without predators, many prey animals overpopulate and STARVE to death(hence the need for HUMAN hunters and/or complete predator protection), and therefore are better off being quickly killed by a humane bullet/arrow, or efficient animal predators. But if they REALLY understand the cycle, then they SHOULD realize that EVENTUALLY, overpopulated predators die lingering, horrible deaths from starvation too, so wouldn't that quick humane bullet be kinder in the end for them as well as the prey animals, regarding SOME occaisional, circumstantial, Predator Control? Things git complicated when humans play at being God….Anyway, I HIGHLY recommend anyone interested in this controversy to get another cultural view of a people who have lived(with their livestiock!) alongside wolves for thousands of years, who control AND rever them, with Jiang Rong's "Wolf Totem"!!!…..L.B.

  6. thank you for your perspective. Certainly we know about "surplus" killing as part of the normal behavior of predators. What puzzles me about THIS particular incident is what I've read about involves wolf surplus killings involves sheep/cattle/ other domestic animals in enclosed areas where they can't escape. For a pack of wolves to kill so many elk (which are not stupid) seems very anomalous to me. It's not all that easy for a wolf to kill even a yearling elk..why couldn't they have escaped? Have you read any reports of injured elk escaping? Oh please note I am NOT suggesting any other cause for the deaths, or any conspiracy by WyFG to hide details.

  7. Emily, the elk could escape – they move back and forth on and off the feedground. Remember, this is not a single wolf attacking an elk – it's a pack. Wolf packs kill adult elk on a daily basis.

    It's the same situation when we've had surplus kills on our sheep flock – these range pastures are several square miles in size, and the kills didn't take place near a fenceline.

  8. …..sometimes predators can surplus kill normally elusive, wild prey animals because of certain conditions–a deep snow that heavier elk or bison break through, that lighter wolves can run on top. This is actually a common scenario for surplus killing, and the carcasses are well preserved in the snow until it thaws! This was one of the scenarios mentioned(and filmed!) in "Wolf Totem" with Mongolian Wolves(of which they used REAL Mongolian Wolf subspecies for the movie-version, which I found admirable!) and Mongolian Antelope. Surplus killing could be a very beneficial instinct/behavior for wolves who depend on migratory species like caribou or the aforementioned Mongolian Antelope–the wolves only have a short window before the migratory prey moves out of their territory(which is what happened with the wolves in Farley Mowat's controversial semi-fictional novel "Never Cry Wolf" that people regularly misinterpret–he DID NOT say anywhere in the book the wolves he observed ONLY ate mostly small rodents/hares ALL THE TIME, but they HAD too at times because that was all that was available when their main large prey, caribou, had moved out of the area….) In areas where the large ungulates do not migrate outside wolves' territories, this is not necessary. But even then, surplus killing can still be useful in better stocked territories simply as an effort/energy saver–why not take advantage of helpless prey when you can, rather than wait for conditions that favor the prey fighting back more effectively, or outrunning you? If anyone has witnessed the sheer excitement and yea–ENJOYMENT any predator exhibits when involved in easy killing(as many people with dogs and cats have witnessed!), it is easy to see where predators can get carried away in the moment. But it is NOT necessarily "wasteful" by Nature's standards. It is only "wasteful" for ranchers/farmers trying to raise and protect their livestock! And I suppose it is wasteful for wolves and other predators regarding domestic stock, too, if they have no further access to the multiple kills they've made! But those instincts are deep-seated. You kill whenever you can, because you never know when you won't have the opportunity. This is probably a hard-wired predatory instinct going back to the dinosaurs!…..L.B.


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