Wildlife managers have finished their annual assessment and found the Jackson Elk Herd is right at its population objective — but the animals aren’t where they’re wanted.
Aerial counts that wrapped up last week found 10,633 elk using feedgrounds and foraging native range. To account for those that were missed biologists rounded-up the count to 11,000 — precisely the herd’s objective. But the whereabouts of the herd are less than ideal, with surplus animals on the National Elk Refuge and only one-third of the desired number of elk wintering in upper portions of the Gros Ventre River drainage.
“The Gros Ventre really dropped quite a bit this year in terms of how many elk there were,” said Aly Courtemanch, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist who keeps tabs on the Jackson Elk Herd. “What we think is going on, based on past movements of elk, is that most of those elk probably came down to the National Elk Refuge.
“For the entire herd we’re right there, numbers-wise,” she said, “but we continue to have challenges trying to distribute elk where we’d like them to be during the wintertime.”
Overall the Jackson herd fell by about 4 percent compared to a year ago, when it was assessed at 11,500 elk.
Counting at the three state feedgrounds and on native range, Courtemanch found 1,164 Gros Ventre elk. Last year 2,326 were counted, and the “soft goal” for the wintering elk population in the Gros Ventre stands at 3,500.
Gros Ventre elk haven’t reached the population goal since 2005, and this year’s tally is the lowest in a dozen years of record keeping.
Conversely, numbers on the National Elk Refuge came in at 8,390, about 68 percent higher than the 5,000-animal objective. The refuge was feeding as many elk as it has any time in 17 years.
Elk from the Gros Ventre are known to sometimes leak out west past the Alkali Feedground and winter on the refuge, but collar data this year didn’t corroborate there being a mass movement. Only two of 10 tracked Gros Ventre elk were detected on the refuge, Courtemanch said.
“We don’t have any really strong radio collar data or observational data to pinpoint exactly where those elk went,” she said.
High birth rates might have also played a role in the surplus of elk on the refuge, she said. The cow-calf ratio for the entire Jackson Herd came in at 20.6. The ratio — which is used as a barometer of the population trend — was just 8.8 calves per 100 cows in the Gros Ventre, but was as high as 31.5 calves per 100 cows on native range.
The number of mature bulls per 100 cows was 30.9, a marked increase compared to recent years. The spike bull ratio, 10.3 per 100 cows, was also up. Courtemanch attributed the higher proportion of males in the herd to warm weather early last fall, and limited success during the bull hunting seasons.
But late-season success by cow and calf hunters made up for the early season lull.
“That increased number [on the refuge] isn’t a lack of harvest pressure,” Courtemanch said. “It’s probably a combination of elk coming down from the Gros Ventre and also we think we had a very strong summer for calf production.”
Final elk harvest data isn’t yet in for hunt units on Bridger-Teton National Forest, but Courtemanch said southern hunt areas such as area 80 had “very strong” harvest.
The National Elk Refuge’s harvest, 268, was the highest since 2003. Grand Teton National Park elk hunters killed closer to 210 animals, which is more in line with the recent harvest there.
Animals in the Jackson Elk Herd that are wintering on native ranges and forgoing supplemental feed this year were the closest to the state’s objective. Those portions of the herd this winter have benefited from mild weather and accessible forage.
Managers aim for 2,500 native range elk in the Jackson herd, and this year counted 2,212.
The bulk of the browsers spotted off of feedlines were discovered in hunt area 80 east of the refuge, near Lower Slide Lake in the lower Gros Ventre and also near Kelly, Courtemanch said.
Some 177 elk were toughing out winter in the Buffalo Valley, and 50 were spotted on East Gros Ventre Butte. A measly two animals were counted in the Spread Creek drainage, and another five were found in private lands south of Grand Teton National Park, Courtemanch said.
Courtemanch and colleagues are now going through the process to set hunting seasons for this fall. She anticipated few changes outside of tweaks to season start and end dates.
Game and Fish’s annual public season setting meeting has been set for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. March 26. The meeting, to be held at the Antler Inn, will cover not only Jackson Hole’s elk but also local herds of bison, moose, deer and bighorn sheep.