Biologist: Lack of elk on refuge ‘remarkable’
By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole Daily
November 11, 2011
The dearth of elk and bison on the National Elk Refuge this late in the fall is “remarkable,” and the forage saved could delay supplemental feeding, a biologist said Thursday.
So far this fall, refuge biologist Eric Cole has detected only one radio-collared bull elk on the south end of the refuge and another bull elk on adjacent Teton National Forest lands, he said.
Hunters haven’t been able to kill any elk on the refuge so far this season. By contrast, on Nov. 8, 2010, refuge officials reported 26 elk killed by hunters with an average of 150 elk occupying the south end of the refuge each day.
Hunters have killed only 20 bison on the refuge since the bison hunt began in mid-August.
“Even though nothing is happening, it’s still a remarkable finding,” Cole said. “It is the lowest numbers of elk this time of the year at least since 1998.
“Abundant forage on summer and transitional elk ranges, combined with limited snow cover on those sites, has resulted in a delay of the migration to the elk refuge,” he added.
“Depending on snow conditions later in the winter, this should mean higher amounts of residual forage and a possible delay of the supplemental feeding season,” he said.
However, the poor hunter harvest on both bison and elk make it hard for wildlife managers to reach the goals of reducing the number of elk and bison that winter on the refuge to 5,000 and 500, respectively. Those goals are outlined in the refuge’s 2007 Bison and Elk Management Plan.
Refuge officials counted 7,746 elk being fed on the refuge last year, and the bison herd was tallied at 883 of those animals on feed.
In addition to abundant forage elsewhere and a lack of snow, elk may be wary of moving because they know they will be under the gun once they traverse the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park and make their way to the refuge.
Elk used to be hunted only on the north end of the refuge, allowing them to rest in a safe zone at the refuge’s south end after running a gantlet of hunters in the north.
But a south-end hunt began in 2007. Limited-range weapons are used there today because the area is close to homes and roads. That hunt may add to the herd’s wariness.
Biologists and photographers say elk are congregating in Grand Teton National Park west of the Snake where they can’t be hunted. Once they move to the refuge, the hunt will reduce their numbers and scare them off the refuge winter range — forcing them back to the park or on to the forest.
The hunt on the refuge ends Dec. 11.
The refuge hunt is conducted in conjunction with the Wyoming Game and Fish Dept. in an effort to cull parts of the Jackson Elk Herd that live where they can’t be hunted — parts of Grand Teton National Park and private lands just south of the park.
Officials estimate that National Elk Refuge forage production this year was up 30 percent over the long-term average. This is the first growing season refuge crews have operated a new $5.1 million sprinkler system that increases the refuge’s irrigation capacity from 900 acres to 4,300 acres. Refuge-wide, forage production was estimated at 18,900 tons, the highest level since 2004.