Written by: Kevin Krasnow, Ph.D., Conservation Director
I knew last winter was rough on mule deer and pronghorn, but I hadn’t realized how rough it was on elk also. WyoFile just published a revelatory story on what could be the largest hoof rot die-off documented at a local winter feed-ground (Warning: Graphic elk mortality pictures on LINK; Koshmrl, 2023).
I wanted to write about this story to raise awareness of the complexities of winter supplemental feeding, but also to ask the critical question about recreational impacts to wildlife, which is occurring in our own backyard, and is very difficult to see. When wildlife move away from recreation-users and/or their noise or other impacts, we typically do not know –they often move before we see them, and the energetic impacts of these disturbances are mostly invisible to us as observers. The Horse Creek Hoof Rot die-off makes this displacement and the resultant consequences visible, and that’s why it’s important to focus on it here.
Winter 2022-23 Horse Creek Feedground Hoof Rot Die-Off
Hoof rot is a well known bacterial infection that elk can get on their hoofs and mouths. It gets into their hooves or mouths when the animals are congregated in high densities in confined winter habitat in which they are forced to step in accumulated feces. Ironically, the infectious bacteria are from their own digestive system. Hoof rot can be deadly, especially for calves who have more susceptible hooves and less developed immune systems.
Last winter, 45% of the calves at the Horse Creek Feedground died. For comparison, 19% of the calves at the National Elk Refuge died (a harsh winter by any standard, but the hoof rot outbreak at the Horse Creek Feedground more than doubled the background elk calf mortality rate).
What caused this outbreak and die-off?
We know that the increased contagion of hoof rot was due to the high density of elk on the feedground and lack of space to spread out (the Horse Creek Feedground had 1,733 overwintering elk when their objective number is 1,250 – a 39% exceedance). But why were there more elk at this particular feedground?
The answer is likely related to reduced hunter pressure and increased winter recreation.
Maybe for access reasons, hunters have been less willing in recent years to travel the 3-miles to the Horse Creek Feedground area without a public access road.
Impacts of winter recreation?
It doesn’t take much to displace elk, – Gary Fralick, Wildlife Biologist, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (Koshmrl, 2023).
In this Horse Creek Feedground example, we see the result of elk being displaced from their “native range” by snowmobiles and skiers in the Munger Mountain +and Grayback Ridge area. We only “see” this here because their displacement caused overcrowding at a feedground on a rough year, which kicked off a hoof rot outbreak.
How many wildlife are displaced by winter recreation, for which we don’t have as clear evidence? This is highly likely in many places in this county outside of the instituted winter closures. Protecting these winter closures (and possibly enlarging them on federal lands) may be our best protection from loving our public lands to death. Recreation already threatens our wildlife and will do so increasingly in the future.
Winter closures for wildlife
The wildlife in our area are fortunate to have winter wildlife closures to protect them and their habitat during the sensitive winter season. Currently 12% (or 1,391,526 acres) of public lands are protected with winter closures in Teton County. The below figure is from the Alliance’s 2023 Human-Wildlife Coexistence Report.
Maps of local winter closures can be found at the Teton Conservation District Winter Closure Map Page HERE.
We are lucky not only to have the abundant wildlife and winter closures, but also to have a mountain ethic that prioritizes wildlife and wild places. We want to thank this community for respecting winter closures, understanding why they are important, and for giving wildlife the space they need in the winter.
Our Don’t Poach The Powder campaign was started almost 25 years ago to educate our community about winter closures and to help build the strong ethic we have today. We are proud of our community’s commitment to protecting the wildlife and wild places of Jackson Hole!
Watch for the seasonal launch of DPTP at the Winter Party.