The first day of February will double as the first day wapiti wintering on the National Elk Refuge witness alfalfa-spewing trucks — in what is also the first year of an altered feeding program.
Assessing available grasses, snow conditions and elk behavior, National Elk Refuge biologist Eric Cole made the call this week to initiate the feeding season using the business-as-usual protocol, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department concurred.
Nothing is too out of the ordinary right now.
“Basically the entire 2019-20 winter has been very close to average by all of our metrics, be it numbers of elk or snow depth,” Cole told the Jackson Hole Daily. “The only exception would be temperature.”
January, he said, has been considerably warmer than average, on the heels of a historically cold calendar year 2019.
The average feeding start date on the refuge is Jan. 27.
Elk numbers are also right around where wildlife managers would expect. Total wapiti where counts occur on the southern refuge flats have oscillated between 3,250 and 5,500 in recent weeks, but that’s largely because the elk are flowing in and out of the hillier country to the north, and also on and off the adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest.
The National Elk Refuge has a goal of wintering 5,000 elk and 500 bison, numbers that theoretically allow going without supplemental feeding during average winters. Those target numbers will help bring the herd better into sync with the landscape and help prevent the spread of disease.
But progress toward meeting the goals, especially the elk objective, has been scant, as the Jackson Herd has redistributed and concentrated more than ever on the refuge over the past decade.
Cole anticipates 6,000 or so elk being drawn down to the refuge feedgrounds in the coming week or so. The attractant is the sound and sight of the feed machines, which wapiti learn to associate with their reliable pelleted alfalfa meals.
The peak elk count in winter, Cole said, typically comes in late February or early March. What the count will end up at, he said, is “hard to say.”
“It depends on how many animals we’re going to see from the Gros Ventre,” Cole said. “They have a significant number of elk up there on native winter range, so the wild card is what’s going to happen with those animals.”
In the early going, elk are gradually eased into a dependence on the rich artificial diet, which is laid out in feed lines. Rations are ratcheted up over a week to 10 days, until each elk is presented with about 8 pounds of alfalfa per day.
Come springtime, Cole will start to implement a “step-down” plan that’s supposed to achieve the 5,000 elk and 500 bison goals.
For the next three winters, the refuge will focus on ending the feeding season early. A somewhat complicated formula will help Cole and Game and Fish biologists make the decision when.
“Basically, we know the current relationship with snow depth and when they’ve ended feeding,” Cole said, “so we can use that relationship to make predictions about when we should end feeding early.”
Historically, the refuge has ended its feeding program around April 1, although the date varies widely.
“I would like to see it end a week earlier, on average, moving forward,” Cole said, “and our best opportunities are going to be in the milder springs to make that happen.”