A phalanx of elk swept across the snowy prairie, a tawny-coated mass on the move that caused National Elk Refuge Biologist Eric Cole to slow his U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pickup truck, retrofitted with snow tracks for outings like this.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Biologist Aly Courtemanch, sitting passenger, wondered just how many wapiti they were looking at.
“Just a guess would be a couple thousand,” Cole told Courtemanch.
The herd, drifting to the northeast, kept revealing itself. Cole upped the estimate to 2,500, then perhaps 3,000.
“They’re interested in that tractor,” Cole said, “plowing the west access road.”
This was precisely the type of behavior the National Elk Refuge is seeking to curb. The massive herd of ungulates were drawn to the tractor because of what they mistook it for: A feeding vehicle, which, in a typical winter, lines out a few dozen tons of alfalfa pellets every morning.
Now, after 110 years, the federal refuge is attempting to cut back on the elk herd’s dependence on human-provided feed. The method entails truncating the feed season — ending the distribution of pellets early and, starting this winter, delaying when elk feeding begins. But so far, the new policy isn’t weaning the elk herd off feed.
“In fact, to date, we’ve been going in the wrong direction,” Cole said. “The percentage of the Jackson Elk Herd using refuge feedgrounds has increased by nine percentage points compared to the baseline.”
Elk feeding on the 24,700-acre refuge is a historic practice started after a series of harsh early-20th-century western Wyoming winters killed what settlers described as tens of thousands of animals. Outfitter and wildlife photographer Stephen Leek drummed up national support for feeding the Jackson Elk Herd through images of their suffering and death that appeared in magazines like Outdoor Life and a lecture tour.
It took nearly a century for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take a long look at modifying the way it manages elk on its property bordering the town of Jackson. Elk feeding has long engendered support because it props up populations and keeps the wild ungulates away from haystacks, highways and neighborhoods. But the practice also curtails natural migrations, inflates the herd size beyond the natural carrying capacity of the landscape and is proven to spread diseases, like bacterial hoof rot. Now there’s a new, always-lethal malady — chronic wasting disease — that’s been confirmed in the herd.
The potential effects of CWD on the Jackson Herd were front and center during years of planning and litigation that led up to the refuge’s current elk and bison management plan, completed in 2007. That plan seeks to trim the refuge’s winter population by several thousand down to 5,000 animals, a number that would theoretically allow federal managers to forgo feeding during winters of average severity.
Steps that Cole and Courtemanch and their bosses are now taking to abbreviate the feeding are intended to teach the herd to go elsewhere.
“What we’re hoping is that they’re not going to the refuge,” Cole said.
Data from GPS-collared elk in the Jackson Herd shows animals that drift down from the Gros Ventre River area are much more likely to remain on the refuge if feeding is occurring, Cole said. When it’s not, they tend to hoof it back up to the natural winter ranges and state-run feedgrounds up the river valley. Over time, as new generations of elk are born, a larger percentage of the herd could cease to know the National Elk Refuge as a place to go, the theory goes.
For over 20 years, Cole has determined when to start feeding elk by systematically measuring the amount of grasses, sedges and forbs that are accessible to foraging elk. To do this, the biologist mimics an elk, pawing down through the snowpack with his gloved hand. Impenetrable snow and ice that an animal couldn’t realistically hoof its way through is left in place, but the more powdery material is moved to the side. Then, Cole drops a 13.27-inch-wide metallic ring, using the vegetation within to estimate its weight.
“This is sized so that each gram of accessible forage here is 100 pounds per acre,” Cole said of the ring.
In a wet, grassy meadow that elk haven’t yet grazed, there can be upwards of 4,000 pounds of forage per acre. In an area that’s hosted hungry elk for weeks — like the zone near Miller Butte where tourists pack into horse-drawn sleighs — the grasses and sedges can get depleted to just a hundred pounds per acre, or even less.
Once the refuge-wide estimate sinks below 300 pounds per acre, the feed trucks have historically started running. The goal was — and still is — to begin feeding before the elk get too antsy and leave for pastures where they are more problematic than when in wild country. That would be the case if the herd poured onto the cattle haylines just across Highway 89 in Spring Gulch, for example.
Starting this year, once the forage is depleted below the 300-pound-per-acre threshold, the refuge will wait for one week to feed. Still, the intent is to fire up the feed trucks before the elk start to leave. Pushing it is not to say that the Jackson Herd is about to start dropping dead by the hundred, Cole said.
“Based on past experience, when elk are under nutritional stress, they leave the refuge long before they start suffering nutrition-related mortality,” he said.
For the last two winters, the National Elk Refuge has also ended its feeding season early.
The one-week lag this winter is not imminent. At the end of Cole and Courtemanch’s Thursday morning assessment, the Game and Fish biologist quickly crunched the numbers. Overall, 788 pounds of forage remained per acre, she said.
The herd’s behavior suggests it’s been content: “So far I’m not seeing signs that the elk are trying to leave the refuge,” Cole said, “but we’ll keep looking at that.”
Specifically, the refuge’s goal in truncating its season is to cut back on feeding by 50%. Managers measure this by tracking “elk fed days,” which is the product of the number of elk being fed and the number of days alfalfa pellets are lined out on the ground. Over the first two years of tinkering with the feed season dates, Cole said, “elk fed days” have averaged 434,842 per year, down from 505,680 in the previous decade.
“That is almost exclusively due to a reduction in the number of days fed, not a change in animal numbers on the refuge,” Cole said. “That’s one metric of success. But what we’re really looking to do is use this to affect range-wide winter distribution over time by [causing] a demographic shift, where the percentage of the Jackson Elk Herd wintering on the refuge is lower, and which, in turn, would hopefully allow us to reach 5,000 elk wintering on the refuge.”
On that front, trends are moving in the wrong direction.
Last winter there were 8,384 wapiti tallied congregated over feed on the National Elk Refuge — 80% of the entire herd and 67% more than the refuge’s 5,000-elk objective. The average number of elk from the first two winters altering the feeding season is up from the average over the previous decade. Numbers for 2022 won’t come in for at least a month.
It’s possible that the refuge’s feeding-reduction plan will never get the chance to fully fail or succeed. Less than a week into the first modified supplemental feeding season in 2020, the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Refuge Association and Defenders of Wildlife sued, seeking a faster feeding phase-out. Earthjustice, which is representing the environmental groups, argued the refuge improperly gave Wyoming veto power over the elk-feeding plans and that plans aren’t substantial enough to avert the worst consequences of chronic wasting disease.
“The really unfortunate thing here is that time is going by, and they’re not making progress,” Earthjustice Managing Attorney Tim Preso said.
The National Elk Refuge and Game and Fish have not encountered a second CWD-positive elk in the Jackson Herd since the first cow carrying the prion disease was discovered in late 2020. But Preso argued this fortune can “change very rapidly.”
“The trouble is that once it gets a foothold, it’s this inexorable process and it’s really hard to stop,” he said. “This is the opportunity to preempt that problem.”
The Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and Jackson Hole Outfitters and Guides Association, which joined the legal dispute as intervenors, both declined interviews for this story, citing the ongoing litigation.