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Parks Chief Says Don’t Feed Starving Yellowstone Elk, Bison

February 26, 1989

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) _ Feeding hay to elk and bison starving in this fire-scarred preserve could do more harm than good, and even if many animals die the herds are in no danger of extinction, says the head of the National Park Service.

The reduction in natural grazing by last summer’s drought and huge fires, combined with a severe winter, have driven elk and bison out of the park into southern Montana, where the state is allowing hunters to kill hundreds of the animals. The state claims they carry disease that could infect livestock.

In the small town of Gardiner, Mont., just north of the park, starving elk are eating hay donated by sympathetic people, along with hedges and trees. Small herds of elk and buffalo have congregated in parking lots.

″They are skinny and eak,″ said Trudi Taylor, who joined with others in town to raise money to feed the animals after one elk died in her yard. She admits the winter will probably claim older animals, but 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 allows diseases to spread among the animals when they gather in tight groups at feeding stations, park service director William Penn Mott said at a news conference Saturday at Yellowstone’s headquarters.

And if park rangers started feeding hay to elk in Yellowstone, the expensive practice could go on forever as the animals become dependent on it, as they have at the national elk refuge at Jackson, Wyo., south of Yellowstone, Mott said.

Mott was sent on a fact-finding trip to Yellowstone by new Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan following national publicity about the hunting in Montana and high mortality in the park’s northern elk herd - the largest migratory elk herd in the world.

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

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

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

Both elk and bison populations in Yellowstone are near all-time highs because several mild winters before this year allowed more animals to survive than in normal years.

Almost 500 of Yellowstone’s 2,700 bison have been shot in Montana and 250 additional permits have been issued. And more than 2,350 elk from Yellowstone’s northern herd of 19,000 were shot by Montana hunters this winter. Last year, only 39 bison were shot in Montana’s hunt.

Inside Yellowstone, rangers have counted more than 300 elk carcasses.

This year’s hunting has been denounced as a slaughter by such animal- welfare activists as Cleveland Amory of New York, president of the Fund for Animals.

Mott repeated his support for reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, not only because wolves could help keep big-game populations in balance, ″but because wolves represent the West and part of biological diversity.″

That proposal is strongly opposed by ranchers outside the park.

Mott said Yellowstone’s herds are in no danger of extinction, but in some areas visitors may see fewer animals this year.

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

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

Montana officials said they authorized the bison hunt because about half of Yellowstone’s bison carry the disease brucellosis, which causes domestic cows to abort their calves.

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

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