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JACKSON - The National Elk Refuge in northwest Wyoming will start providing feed to animals next Tuesday.

The start date of this year's feeding program is a week later than the average and roughly two weeks later than the onset of feeding in 2007 and 2008.

The refuge and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department try to delay the onset of supplemental feeding as long as possible to reduce the amount of time the animals spend crowded together on feed lines. Researchers say crowded conditions increase the chance that diseases like brucellosis are transmitted.

"We have to balance those (disease) concerns against other objectives, which is to minimize conflicts and commingling with livestock … and minimizing winter elk starvation," refuge biologist Eric Cole said.

Elk have not yet begun to leave the refuge for livestock operations. Cole called this year's start date a pre-emptive effort to keep elk away from cattle.

In recent days, refuge employees have counted between 4,300 and 5,200 animals on the refuge.

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Cole predicted that at least 6,500 elk and 700 bison will use the refuge this winter. If the weather turns harsh, those numbers could increase dramatically, he said.

A bison and elk management plan for the refuge sets a goal of 5,000 elk and 500 bison on the refuge each winter.

Cole said refuge employees will start feeding about 3 pounds of alfalfa pellets per elk at the start of feeding, gradually working up to about 8 pounds per animal per week. The gradual start allows elk's digestive systems to adjust to the higher-quality food source.

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