Elk on the move

A group of elk pause near Spring Gulch Road on their way to Gros Ventre River. Short-distnace migrants have increased in number.

Big game hunting outfitters who take clients afield in northern Jackson Hole each fall say they see no silver bullet to reversing a long-term decline in the migratory portion of the Jackson Elk Herd.

But three outfitters contacted by the News&Guide all said they believed predators are playing a large role in the herd’s shift toward elk that migrate short distances onto summering grounds between Moose and Wilson.

Between 1978 and 2012 those short-distance migrants grew from less than 2 percent to 40 percent of the herd, according to new research headed by National Elk Refuge biologist Eric Cole. In the same span, elk that migrate to the Teton Wilderness and into southern Yellowstone National Park declined from 40 to 11 percent of the herd.

Gros Ventre Wilderness Outfitters’ Brian Taylor likened the shifting elk herd dynamics to a person being mugged and learning to stay away from a neighborhood.

“If a guy goes down to the grocery store and the first time he goes down there a thug beats the s--- out of him, the next time he finds a better and safer place to buy his groceries,” Taylor said Tuesday. “It doesn’t take long. Those elk are smart when it comes to figuring out where there’s trouble.”

Despite Taylor’s hunch that elk are learning to steer clear of predators, Cole’s research, co-authored by U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Aaron Foley, found that elk are not behaviorally “switching” away from migration to the Teton Wilderness and Yellowstone.

Rather, the scientists found, individual elk far in the backcountry are successfully rearing half as many calves as suburban elk, and over time the reproductive differences have favored one part of the herd over the other.

Winter ranges ‘uninhabitable’

Harold Turner, a partner in Triangle X Ranch and Teton Wilderness outfitter since 1959, said his observations on the ground align with Cole’s research, which will soon be published in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

“We have noticed this now for the last 15, 20 years,” Turner said Tuesday. “The wilderness elk, the Yellowstone elk and the forest elk have plummeted, whereas the suburban elk have just exploded.”

Turner, like Taylor, thought predators were heavily implicated in the Jackson Elk Herd’s shifting dynamic.

“Our winter ranges, because of the wolves, are absolutely uninhabitable now,” Turner said. “They don’t use them.

“We went from about 900 head of elk in the late ’90s in the Buffalo Valley and Spread Creek drainages,” he said. “This year we were down to 147.”

Yellowstone Outfitters owner Lynn Madsen, who has guided for a quarter century out of the Hawks Rest camp at the southeast corner of Yellowstone, also pointed to wolves as a major factor in the elk herd’s shift.

“I’ll tell you one very simple thing, it’s called predation,” Madsen said. “And now here we do not have any kind of a hunting season on the wolves, and so the door’s open for them.

“We’ve all accepted the fact that we’re going to have wolves,” he said, “but let’s manage them. Right now we’re not doing that with them taking our hunting season away.”

Madsen wants a heavier harvest of the Jackson elk that spend their entire year not far from the National Elk Refuge in southern Jackson Hole.

“To me it’s kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “No. 1, they need to reduce the local herd, the Teton Park herd.

“The elk that are getting killed primarily are the migrational elk, both by the hunters and by predation,” he said. “The urban herd, they’re having 60 calves plus per 100 cows.”

But Madsen and the other outfitters didn’t blame the Wyoming Game and Fish Department — which administers the hunt — for the steady growth of more southerly suburban elk. Game and Fish’s hunt in the region, labeled area 78, begins mid-August, goes until the end of January and prioritizes harvesting cows and calves.

‘Their hands are tied’

“I think their hands are tied,” Madsen said. “You’re talking about a lot of private grounds. Look at old Harrison Ford” — a valley landowner — “He’s one of them that won’t allow hunting.”

Taylor also sympathized with the state wildlife agency.

“The Game and Fish has a monumental task at hand in trying to manage the wildlife and deal with the backlash from the public,” he said.” It’s a big political thing to try to appease everybody and deal with hunting elk on these postage stamp” parcels of land.

Turner said he feared Jackson Hole’s migratory elk were headed for steeper declines, similar to those seen in moose in parts of the valley. But he was also at a loss for a way to reverse the trend.

“I honestly don’t know the solution,” Turner said. “You can stop hunting north of the refuge or north of the Buffalo Valley or north of the Gros Ventre, and you’re going to save a few bulls because that’s all you can hunt anyway.”

The neighborhoods south of the park, he said, will never harbor predators in dense-enough population to slow the elk population growth trend there.

“I honestly don’t see at this point what they’re going to do about it, because they can’t hunt the suburban elk just because of people’s feelings,” Turner said. “They’re afraid somebody’s going to get shot, and they don’t want blood and guts in their front yard, and I can’t say I blame them.”

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

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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