Thursday, November 26, 2009

USFWS Wastes Taxpayer's Money Again

Same song, umpteenth verse at refuge

November 25, 2009 Jackson Hole News & Guide page 5A

By Lloyd Dorsey

It's been said that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different outcomes. So it is with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's recent decision to spend another $5 million of taxpayer monies to construct yet another new sprinkler system on the battered National Elk Refuge.

The refuge has irrigated pastures and fed hay or pellets to the elk for nearly a century now Š and the elk defoliated the refuge and become sick with brucellosis, necrotic stomatitis, scabies, hoof rot and other diseases due to too many animals in unnaturally close quarters.

In more recent times the old irrigation ditches on the refuge were augmented with costly side-roll and pivot sprinklers, the elk were fed alfalfa pellets Š and the elk still defoliated the refuge and became sick. So, in 2007, after a $4 million Environmental Impact Statement, the expensive feeding and irrigating continued Š and the elk still defoliated the refuge and got sick.

Now in 2009 their plan is to spend $5 million on more sprinklers Š and the elk . . . well, you get the grim picture.

None of us needs to be reminded that while Wyoming does have an arid climate, rain and snow still falls here. Native plants still grow in the spring and summer. Elk, bison and other wildlife evolved over thousands of years to thrive in western Wyoming's environment along with such native plants as willows, aspen, bunch grasses and rabbit brush. It was a healthy system.

The natural capital in such a system is free. We just need to quit baiting elk on the Elk Refuge with irrigated plots or pellets and give those willow shrubs nibbled to their nubs a chance. Imagine, Jackson Hole, watching the Elk Refuge return to such a healthy condition with native flora and fauna right before your very eyes. Not unlike the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone.

Instead, in a state that prides itself on fiscal responsibility we have a financial boondoggle. The new irrigation system was supposed to cost $2.8 million; now it's at $5 million. From 2001-07, the Fish & Wildlife Service and Park Service spent millions of dollars analyzing how best to manage elk and bison in Jackson Hole. They ignored their own scientists who recommended a route that would have, "result(ed) in the greatest overall benefit to the biological and physical environment", the alternative recommended overwhelmingly by the public and by biologists who believe phasing out feeding is necessary to stop habitat loss and prevent epidemics of Chronic Wasting Disease.

It boggles the mind- in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the home of internationally treasured fish and wildlife species and the site of some of America's most spectacular landscapes, an intensely artificial wildlife management approach has developed that has turned the Elk Refuge into a glorified winter zoo. With sick animals.

By heavily manipulating wildlife and their habitat the consequences on the Elk Refuge are habitat destruction, loss of wildlife diversity and disease. A century of evidence proves this no matter how good the original intentions were. The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in June 2009 determined that the Elk Refuge was one of the 10 most imperiled wildlife refuges of 540 in the entire nation. They called the circumstances on the Elk Refuge a "wildlife time bomb".

The USFWS now turns to a California-based contractor to waste millions of hard-earned American taxpayer dollars to artificially water plants that would still attract elk and bison in unnaturally dense concentrations. Meanwhile the USFWS reneged on pledges to help with fencing projects that would allow elk and bison to range freely without commingling with the few cattle remaining in local valleys during winter.

Same old, same old. The dominant theme on the Elk Refuge under the current plan is still artificial feeding no matter what they call it.

Elk herds no longer require this kind of intensive manipulation to survive or even thrive. Populations are at record levels in Wyoming and other regions. After a century, it's time to expeditiously take the Jackson elk herd off its circa-1912 life-support. Science tells us that free-ranging elk herds have the best chance of being healthy and sustaining themselves well into the future - not dense concentrations of elk chasing after feed trucks to irrigated plots where they wallow in the disease-ridden muck.

It's high time we start solving old problems with new ideas that really aren't so new. It's time we allow elk to thrive in native habitats, in populations balanced with the carrying capacity of the native plants and soils that sustain them. After all, we know from most valleys in surrounding states and elsewhere in Wyoming that Rocky Mountain elk are faring quite well in Rocky Mountain winters - without hay, alfalfa pellets and $5 million sprinklers.

Lloyd Dorsey is a conservation advocate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Jackson.

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