Fewer elk and bison are chowing down on alfalfa pellets on the National Elk Refuge compared with past winters, even as wildlife are enduring a whopper of a winter.
On-feed elk numbers moved toward the refuge’s goal of 5,000, registering at 6,586 animals when the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and refuge staff counted Feb. 18.
Bison on the 24,700-acre refuge, meanwhile, numbered only 160, well below the refuge’s objective.
“Despite having a really severe winter, they were all over the place,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Aly Courtemanch said of the Jackson Elk Herd’s whereabouts. “The snow came at once and very quickly, and I think some elk just got stuck, so to speak, in some areas, and they’re just making a go of it.”
Flying around in a helicopter the last couple of weeks, Courtemanch witnessed elk eking it out on historic winter ranges that have largely been abandoned in recent years.
“There were numerous times when we were flying along and not seeing any tracks and getting into deeper snow, and I’d be about to tell the pilot to turn around, but then suddenly we’d see elk tracks,” she said. “Sure enough, there’d be elk wintering out in some drainage that we’ve never seen them in before.”
After an unprecedented and near-complete exodus a year ago, throngs of wapiti returned to the Gros Ventre River drainage. Courtemanch counted just 86 elk in the river valley and its surrounding high country in 2018, but she and her colleagues found 2,136 elk there this year. Most were found eating state-provided hay at the Patrol Cabin elk feedground.
The Jackson Bison Herd was also predominantly out in far-flung places it usually abandons come winter in favor of daily rations on the refuge.
“Similar to the elk,” Courtemanch said, “they were doing something I’ve never seen them do before.”
The largest congregations were in northern Grand Teton National Park, near Spread Creek, Elk Ranch and Uhl Hill. The distribution shift comes with some pitfalls.
Bison, for instance, have gored unfenced horses at Moosehead Ranch and caused highway closures by stubbornly sticking to the plowed road to avoid expending unneeded energy. An elk herd is also living amid horses for the winter in a Buffalo Valley pasture.
Both elk and bison that winter away from feedgrounds likely die at higher rates than artificially fed animals, especially calves. On balance, however, Jackson elk and bison spreading out across natural winter ranges signals a healthy shift, Courtemanch said.
“We would prefer the herd to be more distributed versus all being on the refuge,” Courtemanch said. “This is what we’d like them to be doing a bit more of.”
Last winter, which was abnormally mild and brown down low, 10,255 elk were tallied on the refuge, with hundreds more immediately adjacent. Roughly 97 percent of the Jackson Herd was essentially gathered in one spot, which was the highest proportion ever.
Likewise, almost all the 500-plus bison went to the refuge, even though conditions allowed wildlife managers to forgo feeding for the first time since the early 1980s.
Both overall herd counts dipped slightly this year, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to smaller populations. Rather, Courtemanch said, it’s because animals were tucked into the trees and missed during the flight.
Although the National Elk Refuge hasn’t drawn the normal flood of animals, staffers are bracing for the possibility of actual flooding. Snowpack at the headquarters building in town is still in the upper 20-inch range — nearly three times the early-March average. A gradual melt could mean feeding elk unusually late into the spring, while a fast melt could bring major flooding.
“Based on the late-winter weather patterns in recent years,” refuge biologist Eric Cole wrote in a recent biological update, “the most likely scenario is significant flooding on the National Elk Refuge due to warm temperatures and/or rainfall on top of existing snowpack.”
For a more in-depth update on what happened this winter with Jackson Hole’s megafauna, pick up the March 13 edition of the Jackson Hole News&Guide.