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Test EVERY Cow in the Food Chain

Test EVERY Cow in the Food Chain
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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Groups pursue suit over Wyo.'s elk-feeding program, Claim Contributes to Spread of Mad Cow Disease

By JUDITH KOHLER Associated Press Writer
Wyoming's longtime policy of feeding elk in winter on public lands is contributing to the spread of disease, and the federal government should take a hard look at the practice, conservation groups argued Thursday.

U.S. agencies have allowed the state to feed elk for decades on public land in western Wyoming with little public input or analysis of the consequences, an attorney for the groups said in a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hearing.

The two-judge panel is considering an appeal by the groups of a federal court decision in Wyoming. It's unclear when it will rule.

The state feed grounds, in operation since the early 20th century, are supported by ranchers because they keep elk away from their cattle's hay. Hunters support the practice because they worry about elk dying in harsh winters.

But conservation groups claim the incidence of brucellosis, which can cause wildlife and livestock to abort their fetuses, is greater among elk using the feed grounds because the disease spreads as the animals congregate.

Their lawsuit also claims feed grounds make elk vulnerable to chronic wasting disease, a brain-killing ailment once found in deer and elk only in northern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming.

The illness, in the same family as mad cow disease, turned up last year in a moose about 13 miles from a state elk feeding ground, said Tim Preso, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the groups.

The lawsuit by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Wyoming Outdoor Council seeks to force the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to prepare environmental reviews of 12 feed grounds.

Federal officials note there is a 1981 agreement with Wyoming dealing with the feed grounds and that permits were issued for some of the sites years ago. Preso countered that a review is needed because of the increase in brucellosis and chronic wasting disease.

"Their position is we could have elk dropping by the hundreds," Preso said, "and their obligation ended in 1981."

Referring to concerns about disease spreading to livestock, Judge Mary Beck Briscoe asked government lawyers: "Are you turning a blind eye to this problem or are you trying to do something to resolve it?"

Robert Oakley, a Department of Justice attorney, said shutting down the feed grounds and possibly increasing the chances of infected elk mingling with cattle might not be the answer. He said environmental reviews were recently done of six feed grounds.

The conservation groups' argument should be with the state of Wyoming, which is responsible for the wildlife and state regulations, said Levi Martin, Wyoming senior assistant attorney general.

"The fact of the matter is that this is a more attractive venue for them. That's why we're here," said Martin, referring to the appeals court appearance in Denver.

After the hearing, Preso said his clients haven't succeeded in working with state officials. He said the federal agencies conducted environmental assessments of some of the feed grounds only after a lawsuit was filed.

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