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Parks Chief Advises Against Feeding Starving Yellowstone Elk, Bison

February 27, 1989

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) _ Elk and bison in fire ravaged Yellowstone would be better helped by long- term solutions rather than by donations of hay, says the National Park Service director.

A severe winter and loss of natural foods because of last summer’s drought and huge fires have driven hundreds of elk and bison over the park boundary into southern Montana.

In the small Montana town of Gardiner, north of the park, starving elk are eating ornamental hedges, trees, and hay donated by sympathetic people. Small herds of elk and buffalo have congregated in town.

″They are skinny and weak,″ said Trudi Taylor, who helped raise money to feed the animals after one elk died in her yard. She said she hopes to save younger cows that will soon calve.

″In this town, most of the people make their money off these animals. At least they could give a little back,″ she said, referring to the area’s popularity with hunters and tourists.

But feeding hay to elk is expensive and can spread disease when elk gather at feeding stations, Park Service Director William Penn Mott told a news conference at park headquarters.

Once rangers start providing hay to elk in Yellowstone, the expensive practice could continue indefinitely, like at the national elk refuge in Jackson, said Mott, who was sent on a fact-finding trip Saturday by new Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr.

Almost 500 of Yellowstone’s 2,700 bison have been shot in Montana in a state-sanctioned hunt, and 250 additional permits have been issued. More than 2,350 elk from Yellowstone’s northern herd of 19,000 were shot by Montana hunters this winter. Inside Yellowstone, rangers have counted more than 300 elk carcasses.

Mott said one option he could support was to have the federal government acquire more winter game range in Montana north of the park. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation of Missoula, Mont., announced Friday that it will start a special fund toward expanding winter range for Yellowstone’s northern elk herd.

Mott also said he will ask the Park Service, other federal and state agencies and conservation groups to help draft a report to look at Yellowstone’s total wildlife management program, which he called fragmented.

″This is needed so that everybody knows what is going to be done for long- term management of Yellowstone Park and preservation of the area,″ he said.

Mott said he hoped a wildlife report would be completed within six months.

″We will look at the total ecosystem and how to best manage wildlife. If land is being overgrazed, we should look at this.″

Mott repeated his support for reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, saying they could help keep big-game populations in balance and are part of the West’s ″biological diversity.″

Elk and bison populations in Yellowstone are near all-time highs because of recent mild winters.

The big-game herds are in no danger of extinction, but in some areas visitors may see fewer animals this year, he said.

″Even if winter kill (of northern herd elk) is 50 percent, there would still be a core that would rapidly reproduce,″ he said.

Mary Meagher, a Yellowstone biologist, said ″bison have the biological capacity of recovering from low numbers.″ She recalled that the park’s hundreds of bison started with a remnant population of 22 animals.

Montana officials authorized a bison hunt because about half of Yellowstone’s bison carry the disease brucellosis, which some scientists say could be transmitted to cattle.

But Meagher said her best information from the Montana state veterinarian was that no cases of brucellosis in that state had been traced to Yellowstone Park animals. She pointed out that ranchers vaccinate their calves against the disease.

Last year, only 39 bison were shot in Montana’s hunt, and this year’s hunt has been denounced as a slaughter by activists such as Cleveland Amory, president of the Fund for Animals.

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