Park elk on the run
As a veteran game warden watches, the seamy side of the Grand Teton National Park elk hunt unfolds.
Wyoming Game Warden Jerry Longobardi checks the license of young hunter Nicholas Frank, 12, after he and his sister, Bridget, 15, shot an elk Nov. 19 near Blacktail Butte in Grand Teton National Park. PRICE CHAMBERS / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Miller N. Resor, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 28, 2012
The Tetons are glowing pink in the valley’s first light as Wyoming Game and Fish warden Jerry Longobardi’s green pickup truck crests the rise above the National Elk Refuge.
He is on his way to monitor the elk reduction program in Grand Teton National Park, one of the many duties he’s performed in his 29 years on the job. On this day two weeks ago, his field biologist credentials come second to his law enforcement training, but he has no problem patrolling the hunt.
“Look at that view,” he says of the Tetons. “You never get tired of that.”
What he sees next is more unsettling: At Antelope Flats he spots a herd of what he estimated to be 75 elk out in the open sagebrush.
Hunters begin to approach from the southwest. The elk move west, toward the Snake River and safety, but balk. More hunters move toward the herd until the group is surrounded on three sides. The elk are already moving when the first shots ring out.
They race back and forth, then huddle. Steam rises from their heated bodies. They are confused, on edge.
“They don’t know where to go,” Longobardi says. “It’s times like this I start rooting for the elk.”
Such is the opinion of many who witness a milling elk herd besieged by hunters during the park’s annual elk reduction program. While many elk are killed cleanly and ethically, others aren’t, and the highly visible hunt energizes critics every year.
Longobardi pulled his truck onto the highway and activated his overhead lights to stop traffic and give the animals an avenue toward safety. A park ranger did the same farther down the highway, creating a passage.
More shots sounded. The lead cow crossed the highway, the herd following over a bluff to the Snake River bottom. Longobardi pulled his truck to the side of the road and jumped out to watch.
One hunter below had positioned himself well, and Longobardi saw him shoot a cow elk as the herd reached the river bottom. The shot turned the herd, but it hooked toward the Snake, running. Shots began ringing out from the parking lot at Schwabachers Landing, hundreds of yards away.
Longobardi was angry. He was sure there were going to be wounded elk.
‘Not a real hunt’
“There is something about elk in the open that can bring out the worst in people,” he said as he drove down to investigate. “This is why this is not a real hunt. ... It’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel.”
When he arrived in the parking lot, park ranger Scott Guenther was issuing warnings to three hunters who were shooting from the parking lot. The day before, Longobardi had cited two men who had shot from within a quarter mile of the road, he said.
“We are the referees,” he said. “We make sure that everyone plays by the rules.”
Longobardi followed several hunters in the direction the elk went, crossing several side channels until he was near the Snake itself.
Arriving at the first hunter, a man from North Dakota, Longobardi found a cow elk that had been gut shot. The hunter had finished it off just before Longobardi arrived.
Longobardi reviewed the man’s license, park permit and hunter safety card. He found everything legal, but not in order.
After moving on, he said it’s unethical to shoot long distances at running elk. That’s what leads to gut-shot elk running off to die slow, painful deaths.
“I would never shoot at an animal I wasn’t 100 percent sure I was going to kill,” he said. “A real hunter would not find satisfaction in this sort of hunt.”
Longobardi used “to really love to hunt.” Now he doesn’t have as much time or desire. But he still loves the meat and tries to keep some in his freezer.
“Game warden’s generally know where to find an elk,” he said with a wink.
To his surprise, he found only one small trail of blood as he continued to follow the herd. The drops were about 20 feet apart and ended at the river. On the far side was safety. He was hopeful the bleeding elk would survive.
As he walked back, he looked in the trees for signs of animals that might have split off from the herd, but found nothing. Over the course of his career, Longobardi has had to kill hundreds of wounded elk, something that does not make him happy. It’s a potential consequence of hunting anywhere.
By 11 a.m., with the herd across the river and the sun well overhead, his work for the day was largely done.
30 shots, four elk
As a consequence of the 30 or so shots fired that day, four elk went down between Antelope Flats and the river bottom. The day before, nine elk were killed in the same area.
A large male grizzly bear had been spotted in the area to the north and would likely be feeding on the gut piles, Longobardi said. If he were the bear, he said, he would be sleeping in a dry place beneath a tree waiting for ravens to show him the way to gut piles.
Hunting in there struck him as dangerous. He said he hoped hunters would be careful.
Six days later, a party of three shot and killed an adult male grizzly nearby.
Despite the imperfections and even dangers, the park hunt is necessary, Longobardi said.
“The Teton Park hunt is really important as far as trying to reach management levels on the refuge,” he said. “Without the hunt, it would be unattainable.”
Grand Teton and Yellowstone wilderness contain the largest remaining elk populations in North America, but before Europeans arrived, elk were spread across the entire country. When the first settlers arrived in Jackson, the valley likely supported as many as 25,000 elk.
The buttes that surround Jackson were perfect for wintering elk because winds cleared the snow from the ridges and allowed elk to reach the native grasses they feed on, Longobardi said.
But the town of Jackson was built on some of these prime elk winter ranges. The competition between elk and livestock for winter food, combined with the valley’s harsh winters, depleted the population. The National Elk Refuge was created in 1912 to preserve the herd.
One hundred years later, the refuge continues its mission, but with a new goal. A management plan adopted in 2007 calls for a winter herd of 5,000 elk on the refuge, down from 7,500. Grand Teton National Park should have a summer population of 1,600. The entire herd, which includes animals wintering north of Jackson and in the Gros Ventre drainage, should remain at the state’s objective of 11,500, according to the plan.
The legislation that expanded Grand Teton National Park in 1950 allowed for an elk reduction hunt when necessary to maintain a healthy population. Thus was created the only public hunt in a national park.
Every year, wildlife biologists and game wardens from the state Game and Fish department along with park officials determine hunting regulations to cull the herd and reach the new goals.
This year, hunters drew 725 licenses for cow and calf elk by lottery. It is the first year bull elk have been excluded from the hunt. The work Longobardi and many others do throughout the year determines the quotas.
“The problem is the river-bottom elk are thriving,” Longobardi said, referring to elk that live in southern Grand Teton and on private land south of the park.
Hunters are largely prohibited in those areas. Predators are reluctant to frequent neighborhoods.
“Meanwhile, the Yellowstone and Teton Wilderness elk are struggling,” Longobardi said. “We need to kill river-bottom elk to preserve healthy populations of park elk.”
In his 29 years, Longobardi said, he feels like he has seen 10,000 years of ecological change. The influx of grizzlies, restoration of wolves, onset of the mega-fire, changing climate and human growth make it difficult to say for sure why some species have flourished and other struggled.
Human involvement has clearly had its effects.
“Man is here,” he said. “You can’t divorce man from the scene.”