National Elk Refuge feeding

Elk gather to eat alfalfa pellets spread by a feed trailer in early February. The National Elk Refuge’s official on-feed elk count this winter came in at 8,095.

Numbers of wapiti drawn to the National Elk Refuge’s feed lines are up significantly this winter, with 8,095 animals counted during an assessment a week ago.

The overall on-feed count is 11% greater than the 10-year average of 7,314 elk, and it’s 23% higher than the 2019 tally of 6,586 wapiti.

Given that it has been an average winter at low elevations, the number and distribution of elk found eating alfalfa pellets on the Feb. 18 survey day are right about what Elk Refuge biologist Eric Cole would expect to see.

"Overall, this appears to be the typical pattern, where 70 to 80% of the overall Jackson Elk Herd winter on the refuge," Cole told the Jackson Hole Daily.

Surveying the entire herd the same week, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department found 10,927 in the Jackson Herd, a count that hits the state’s 11,000-elk objective almost on the nose.

See next week’s edition of the Jackson Hole News&Guide for a more detailed story about how many elk and other ungulates were tallied in the local herds — and where they were located.

In recent decades, the Jackson Elk Herd has redistributed and become more and more reliant on the 24,700-acre U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-managed refuge. As recently as the 1970s and ’80s, about 50% of the herd wintered on the refuge.

In the winter of 2017-18, conditions were historically mild and feeding wasn’t necessary. Nevertheless, almost all the herd — 95% of it — either wound up on the refuge or on the immediately adjacent slopes on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

The shift has complicated the refuge’s attempts to cut winter numbers down to 5,000 elk, a goal wrapped up in a larger objective of transitioning away from the 108-year-old feeding program.

That effort — and a plan that’s supposed to achieve the feeding reduction — is currently the subject of an Earthjustice lawsuit.

The strategy that the feeding reduction plan is starting off with is to stop the alfalfa dole slightly earlier in the winter.

On average, feed trucks stop running April 1, but this year the refuge is aiming to move that end date up a week or so.

Current conditions are about average on the refuge — there’s a foot-deep snowpack at headquarters — which means it’s probably a good winter to test the efficacy of the strategy, Cole said.

The makeup of the elk that were using the National Elk Refuge during this year’s assessment was also right around the norm.

The Game and Fish, Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park employees who partook in the “classification” clicked off 5,531 cows, which means adult females comprised 68% of the refuge’s herd.

For every 100 cows counted, there were 18 calves, 21 mature bulls and seven spikes, ratios that are all close to what has been observed in recent winters.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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