In the depth of each winter Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists take to the skies and hop into pickups to count and classify the big-game species that live in Jackson Hole.
The annual assessment enables wildlife managers to estimate populations and track herds’ distributions, partly to set the following fall’s hunting seasons.
Some large game species that winter in the valley are counted one by one, sorted by sex and age in order to determine reproductive success, a key factor in the trend of the herd population. Elk, bison, bighorn sheep and moose all fall into that category.
Other native species, like pronghorn and mule deer, primarily migrate out of the valley in the winter, are considered portions of larger regional herds and aren’t tracked as closely locally.
Peruse the species updates below to see how Jackson Hole’s trademark wildlife fared in 2018 and the first couple of months of this year.
Game and Fish wardens and biologists are convening a public meeting next week to go over the herds and hunting proposals. It’s happening from 6 to 8 p.m. March 20 at the agency’s office on North Cache Street.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Aly Courtemanch says her colleagues counted 9,627 animals in the range roamed by the Jackson Elk Herd this winter, which is about 1,200 less than last year.
Although there was a dip on paper, retreating from the herd goal of 11,000 elk, she suspects that hundreds of animals were in the trees and evaded her eye, and that the herd is about as large as it was a year ago.
“The three-year average right now is 10,423,” Courtemanch said. “Based on that we are currently at objective.”
Meanwhile, Courtemanch’s counterpart who oversees the Fall Creek Elk Herd, which roams south of Highway 22, observed more wapiti than he did a year ago. There were 4,100 total animals tallied on the feedgrounds and hillsides in southern Jackson Hole, biologist Gary Fralick said.
“That’s up from about 3,750 last year,” Fralick said, and a step toward the herd objective of 4,400 animals.
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In the Jackson Herd, Courtemanch noted more cows and about the same number of calves as she has in recent years. There were 6,517 cows, up from 6,359 last winter, and 1,338 calves, up from 1,257 a year ago.
The big drop-off was in numbers of bull elk tallied on feedgrounds and natural winter range. While there were 1,226 bulls observed — more than 600 fewer than last year — the likely explanation, she said, is that the antlered elk were in the trees and missed by the assessment.
Fralick observed “very encouraging” ratios of calves to cows in the Fall Creek Herd, of around 29 per 100, up from 22 last year.
The Jackson Elk Herd was more distributed than it has been in years, Courtemanch said.
“They’re doing exactly what we want them to be doing,” Courtemanch said. “They’re not all concentrated down on the refuge like they were the last couple years.”
The breakdown for the whereabouts of the Jackson Herd was: 6,586 animals on the National Elk Refuge, 2,136 elk on feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre River drainage and 905 around the valley surviving on what Game and Fish refers to as “native range.” Those native range elk were everywhere, from the Buffalo Fork drainage to places like Shadow Mountain and the Snake River bottomlands.
“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,” Courtemanch said. “Sure enough, there’d be elk wintering out in some drainage that we’ve never seen them in before.”
Elk that live in the areas Game and Fish considers the Fall Creek Herd territory were equally distributed. Fralick didn’t see animals wintering in new nooks of southern Jackson Hole, but he reported “good numbers” on native winter range. His crews counted around 2,100 wapiti on the jointly managed Camp Creek and Horse Creek feedgrounds, 850 elk at South Park and another 700 animals at the Dog Creek Feedground. The remaining 450 elk tallied were trying to eke out a living in places like the south end of Munger Mountain and the foothills east of South Highway 89.
Ground and aerial counts of the Jackson Bison Herd turned up 484 animals, down nearly 100 animals from the tally of 567 one winter ago. The herd objective is 500, and both those numbers are within the plus-or-minus 20 percent margin of error.
As with Jackson Hole’s elk, that decline is very likely related to bison being in the trees and undetectable.
“We anticipated based on the hunt that we should probably have about 580,” Courtemanch said. “We were probably missing about 100 bison in our survey, which sounds weird. How can you miss 100 bison? But, honestly, where they’re at up near Elk Ranch we saw a number of groups basically living in the trees.”
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Bison counters detected a ratio of 38 calves for every 100 cows, which is lower than normal but not cause for alarm.
The ratio of bulls to cows continues to run “very high,” at 128 adult males for every 100 females.
Most the valley’s bison typically gather on the National Elk Refuge to feed on alfalfa pellets, but this winter only 155 animals — less than a third the herd — made it down south.
“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 Moose Head Ranch and caused highway closures by stubbornly sticking to the plowed road to avoid expending energy unnecessarily. 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.
The Jackson Bighorn Sheep Herd slumped slightly in number, with the official count of 363 down from 400 a year ago.
Visibility and where those sheep roamed, as with the other species, was likely a factor.
“I don’t think it was reduced,” Courtemanch said.
The small, imperiled herd in the Teton Range had its strongest showing in years when Courtemanch flew in December. She counted 81 animals.
“It’s very encouraging,” Courtemanch said at the time. “It’s still a very small population, but not as small as we thought it was a few years ago.”
During a more recent late-February assessment, however, the sheep’s high-elevation, windswept winter ranges looked grim.
“It is rough up there,” the Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist said. “There are some windblown spots, but the patches are super small this year, and they’re surrounded by really deep snow. We’re definitely concerned that those sheep are really having a tough winter.”
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Game and Fish crews observed a “really good” lamb-to-ewe ratio of 49 to 100 that suggest the Jackson Herd is on the upswing. That’s the most that have been observed in at least seven years.
Rams were also relatively numerous in the Jackson Herd, and 41 of the males were counted for every 100 ewes. All told, 53 mature “three-quarter curl” rams were tallied.
The Teton Herd was less prolific, with a ratio of 27 lambs for every 100 ewes.
The most conspicuous place the Jackson Herd roams, on the south and east slopes of Miller Butte, has had a relative dearth of sheep this winter.
Indications are that some of those sheep shifted ranges into the Cache Creek drainages, into high crags in the Woods Canyon area. Don’t go looking for them, though — the slopes on the east side of Crystal Butte where the sheep are roaming are all located in winter range that doesn’t open to people until May 1.
During the earlier flight, Teton sheep were found in their expected haunts, in places like Upper Cascade Canyon. The sheep were split between two sub-herds that don’t mingle: one in the north Tetons with 44 animals, and a south herd with 37 sheep.
During the later, less-intensive aerial survey, however, Courtemanch saw only a few. She worried that some of the animals searched for better conditions and that there will be casualties from avalanches found come spring.
Moose numbers remain well below historical highs, but a long and slow rebound appears to be continuing for the Jackson and Sublette herds, which both live in Jackson Hole.
Courtemanch counted 258 moose in the Jackson Herd’s parameters, which is in the realm of the 250 to 300 moose she’s been seeing in recent years.
In Fralick’s survey area on the Snake west bank, into the Snake River Range and south of Highway 22, he eyed around 40 animals — also about normal.
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All signs are that moose had a great year of reproduction, both Courtemanch and Fralick reported. In the Jackson Herd biologists detected 52 calves for every 100 cows, which is the highest ratio of young witnessed since 1994.
“The calf ratio bottomed out in 2008 at 15 calves per 100 cows,” Courtemanch said. “It’s gotten to the point where it indicates growth of the herd.”
Bull numbers in the Jackson Herd were also high once again, at a ratio of 91 per 100 cows.
Fralick had a similar report: “ The number of twins this year was the highest I’ve seen in the last 10 years. I saw six sets of twins, which is extraordinary for me in my surveys.”
The locations of moose varied widely depending on where biologists looked.
In southern parts of Jackson Hole that have near-record snow depths at low elevations, animals have been stacked up on the valley floor, visible in town and near trailheads. Conditions are different farther north.
“When you go north in the Gros Ventre and Buffalo Valley the snow depth is not like it is down here,” Courtemanch said. “Gros Ventre moose were in their usual places. Some were on the main river, but there were also some up high in the side drainages. Two years ago all the moose were concentrated right in the river.”
Fralick reported seeing moose in their usual haunts, in places like Mosquito and Willow creeks.