Elk feeders in the Jackson Hole area have finished, or are about to finish, hucking hay from horse-drawn sleighs and spewing alfalfa through big-rig hoppers.
The last day alfalfa pellets will hit the ground on the National Elk Refuge is Monday, biologist Eric Cole reported. Meanwhile, a handful of Jackson-area feedgrounds the Wyoming Game and Fish Department manages have either already stopped operations for the season or are nearing the end.
On the 39-square-mile refuge just north of Jackson, elk are somewhat apathetic about their government-provided rations, turning instead to green grass that’s starting to sprout and the remnants of last year’s growth.
“The animals are still interested in feed initially,” Cole said Friday, “but unlike midwinter, within a half-hour of being fed, 30 to 40 percent of them are either bedded down or looking for natural standing forage.”
The anticipated feeding end date of April 15 is two weeks later than average, but the supplemental program’s duration was about normal because it didn’t start until Feb. 6, which is 10 days later than usual. Animals on the refuge seemed to weather the historically snowy and colder-than-usual midwinter just fine.
“Even though February was very difficult from a snow perspective, all in all the feed season went well because we had few bison and relatively few elk,” Cole said.
Mortality was low, he said, and elk were inclined to stay put at the feeding areas on the refuge, which made managing numbers and lining alfalfa on unsullied ground easier.
Three elk feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre River drainage closed for the season last week, and operations at four state-run feedlots are in the process of shutting down, Game and Fish regional wildlife coordinator Doug McWhirter said.
The Horse Creek feedground will be done any day, he said, and elk feeding at the adjacent Camp Creek feedground is still going only as an attempt to keep elk off private pastures south of the highway in Bryan Flats. Elk are well dispersed through the area east of Hoback Junction, and motorists are advised to be cautious.
Feeders at the South Park and Dog Creek feedgrounds are both still lining hay, he said.
“They’re still going,” McWhirter said, “just to give things a chance to open up a little bit more so when those elk leave they’re not going to be in the neighboring ranches.
“I think I would speak for everyone, the elk included,” he said, “when I say that we’ll be glad when winter’s over.”
Although elk feeding is ending soon on the refuge, it’s high time for wildlife watching for a variety of species big and small. The wapiti, for one, are still around — all 40 GPS-collared elk have so far held tight, Cole said. Ubiquitous Uinta ground squirrels, aka chiselers, are out and chirping. The Pinnacle Peak pack of wolves has been active on the refuge flats. Around 70 bighorn sheep are lingering on their Miller Butte winter range.
There hasn’t yet been a grizzly bear sighting on the refuge, though this time last year, bruins were observed feeding on winter-killed carcasses. Cole said he wouldn’t be surprised if they soon return, and volunteers picking up antlers for the Boy Scout Elk Antler Auction have been instructed to be on guard.
“It’s just the new reality here,” Cole said. “We have to assume there might be grizzlies around.”