The Thanksgiving week in Jackson Hole is usually high time for hunters looking to fill their freezers with the meat of elk cows and calves migrating through Grand Teton National Park on the way to the National Elk Refuge.
And through Friday afternoon, there were a lot of hunters and next to no elk.
“This is not to say it couldn’t happen this afternoon or evening,” National Elk Refuge biologist Eric Cole said Friday, “but at least as of right now, there’s been very few elk harvested on the refuge the entire season.”
A single elk, to be exact. And it was a bull killed by a hunter weeks ago.
In Grand Teton National Park, the harvest through Thanksgiving wasn’t much better: two elk reported killed by 375 permitted hunters.
At least in recent decades, this has been an unprecedented slow start to the valley’s two late-season public-land cow elk hunts, Cole said.
Typically, by the last weeks of November dozens of elk have been shot on the refuge, and it’s common to have hundreds of elk moving through the refuge’s south end.
“But we haven’t seen anything like that to date this season,” Cole said.
The refuge biologist said he’d heard a report of 300 cow elk moving through the Antelope Flats area in Teton Park, the north part of which is closed to hunting. But beyond that, based on GPS collar data, the herds have been sticking to transitional ranges. Hundreds of wapiti from the 11,000-head Jackson Herd have been lingering in the subdivisions and ranchland south and west of Jackson Hole Airport. There have been “low thousands” of elk using the benches and bottomlands along the Snake River, and “low thousands” more up the Gros Ventre River drainage.
The longest-migrating elk, a portion of the herd in a significant long-term decline, have generally made it off of summer ranges in the Teton Wilderness and southern Yellowstone and are staged further south in the Buffalo Valley and near the Snake River, Cole said.
Cole pointed to two potential causes of the delayed migration and resulting dismal hunter success. A dry and warm November, he said, has certainly been a factor.
“But this is also part of a longer-term [trend] of animals moving to the refuge later in the year,” Cole said. “That’s partially by design. Basically our own hunting seasons have trained the animals to migrate later. To date, it’s been a successful tool to delay coming to the refuge until the late-fall time period.”
The refuge is under the gun to achieve its own management objective of housing 5,000 wintering elk, a number that would theoretically allow for no supplemental feeding during average winters. The goal has been elusive and numbers have climbed, but the final plan is expected to be issued by January and put into place prior to the coming feeding season.
Cole stressed that the ongoing first big snowstorm of the season could initiate a larger migratory movement at any time, and make the words in this story obsolete by the time they get to readers.
But the trends are “not looking good,” at least for hunters holding out hope to punch their park and refuge tags. The refuge’s hunter hotline, 733-9212, predicted that the presence of “shoulder to shoulder” hunters with unfilled tags in the park would work to prevent animals from getting to the refuge. The park hunt ends Dec. 8, and that will put a premium on the last week of the refuge hunt, Dec. 9-13. Those permits are available to Wyoming hunters with unfilled elk tags, and they’re drawn through in-person and online lotteries.