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Winter Feeding of Elk in Western North America

Bruce L. Smith
The Journal of Wildlife Management
Vol. 65, No. 2 (Apr., 2001), pp. 173-190
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Wildlife Society
DOI: 10.2307/3802896
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3802896
Page Count: 18
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Winter Feeding of Elk in Western North America
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Abstract

Winter feeding of elk (Cervus elaphus) is a topic that has engendered a great deal of debate among wildlife biologists, policy makers, and the general public. The first institutional feeding of elk in North America occurred in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where several thousand elk are still fed during most winters at the National Elk Refuge. Winter feeding of elk is employed on an annual basis by state agencies in Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. During 1995-99, an average 31,000 elk were fed in those 5 states at a cost of $1.6 million. Most feeding programs originated due to conflicts between elk and agricultural uses of historic elk winter range. Wildlife managers generally resorted to feeding to reduce damage by elk to crops, and to provide economic benefits of maintaining more elk than diminished winter habitat could sustain. Several negative consequences result from feeding elk. These include (1) the monetary costs of feeding, which divert dollars from other resource programs; (2) excessive herbivory that alters plant community structure and consequently affects the value of habitats near elk feedgrounds to other wildlife species; (3) changes in elk behavior that are of both spatial and philosophical significance; (4) diseases, which are more readily transmitted among densely concentrated animals, threaten the welfare of elk and other species, and shape resource management; and (5) public perceptions that may lead to the devaluing of habitat. These consequences argue for a shift from a production-consumption model of elk management toward management that embraces conservation of all species, maintenance of ecosystem functions, and sustainability of resources. I suggest proactive alternatives to winter feeding, which may avert conflict situations that precipitate public and political pressures to feed elk.

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