The calls to Game Warden Jon Stephens’ cellphone usually start up as April’s snowpack recedes and animals stream off the National Elk Refuge by the hundreds.
Elk invariably post up near cows on pastureland and get into haystacks — behavior not tolerated in Wyoming. And Stephens hops into his green pickup, bound for Spring Gulch, where he’ll deploy booming propane cannons and inflate wavy, wacky tube men to shoo the hungry herd on its way.
Problem fixed. Sort of.
“Immediately,” Stephens said, “I start getting complaints from people by Golf and Tennis saying that they can’t sleep at night.
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he said. “If I don’t try to make an effort, the rancher’s yelling at me. But then I do stuff, and all the neighbors yell at us because of noisemakers and eyesores.”
The elk and the conundrum they create never truly leave.
As the decades since settlement have passed, Jackson Hole’s famed elk herd has become evermore dependent on the Snake River bottoms and surrounding expanses of ranchland and subdivisions. Random sampling of the Jackson Elk Herd 40 years ago found that just a small fraction, perhaps a few hundred animals, summered among humans in the increasingly developed landscape between Moose and Wilson. Nowadays it’s close to a quarter of the herd — thousands of wapiti whose digs are the private property of the rich and land-rich.
The proliferation of these so-called “short-distance migrant” elk has sparked a debate about fencing migration corridors and having a five-month hunting season in sight of multimillion-dollar homes. At the heart of the discussion is Jackson Hole’s commitment to coexistence with elk in an area that is perceived by managers as having too many of the 500-plus-pound critters.
Elk on the move
The controversy often comes to a head when the elk are on the go.
A major migration route the herd uses each fall and spring to get to and from the refuge lies just past the Gros Ventre River, hemmed in on the north side by homes along Kings Highway. The corridor’s location isn’t ideal — it cuts straight through Serenity Ranch — but it’s the best passage the elk have, and so they go.
“I just want them to go in and out,” Serenity Ranch’s Lewis Lesley said from his pasture in early December. “I want them to come through here, miss my cattle and stay segregated.”
Where Lesley stood was littered with hoof prints left by 400 to 500 refuge-bound elk he watched push through two days before. It’s not exclusively a spring and fall problem for the rancher. A good deal of Serenity’s hay crop, he said, is eaten by elk while it’s green, before it sees a bailer.
The Jackson Hole newcomer, who manages the ranch for San Diego Padres co-owner Glenn Doshay, has partnered with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and wildlife advocacy groups like the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, to deal with the elk. Strolling around the flat, open property on a hand-numbing morning, he pointed out a handful of “drop-down” sections of fence where the animals could move on or off of the ranch with ease.
Although agricultural land is exempted from Teton County’s fence regulations, Lesley has been embroiled in a debate over the height of his easternmost fence line. It runs alongside a still-undeveloped 43-acre portion of the ranch that was carved out into a planned residential development seven years ago. Attempts to raise the fence have been halted by county regulations, which capped the height at 42 inches.
“Every year that I’ve had cattle get out,” he said, “it has been right there.”
Some neighbors and outspoken conservationists have had a dimmer view of his fence-raising attempts, seeing it as an abandonment of a compromise and an attempt to occlude a historic migration. The resulting rift is bad-blooded, and Teton County Sheriff’s Office deputies have made frequent visits to the Serenity area to respond to reports of trespass and to ease tensions. Worried about retribution, more than one neighbor declined an interview for this story.
An early hunt
Every Aug. 15 the bullets start flying on the buttes hugging Spring Gulch Road and on the ranches along the Snake River. It’s still open season as this newspaper hits P.O. boxes around the valley.
Elk hunting seasons in the area, unit 78, are the most aggressive in Teton County. The hunt has started earlier in the summer and extended later into the winter as the years have passed. The aim is to counteract growth of a herd that’s producing calves at more than twice the rate of the elks’ mountain-dwelling counterparts.
The science isn’t settled on why resident herds of elk are thriving, but it’s a trend observed around the Mountain West. One theory is that summer nutrition is better on balance in irrigated lowlands than in mountain meadows that steadily dry. Resurgent populations of large carnivores like wolves and grizzly bears have also been implicated, especially in Jackson Hole, because the species thrive and dampen numbers of ungulates in the backcountry while remaining averse to developed areas.
Regardless of the reason, Teton County’s lowland elk have thrived for decades.
Judging by randomly captured, collared and tracked animals, the number of elk that live between Moose and Wilson has probably increased from the low hundreds in the late 1970s to as many as 2,500 today, refuge biologist Eric Cole said. The most recent assessment suggests the growth may have stagnated.
Population epicenters, Cole said, are located near the confluence of the Gros Ventre and Snake rivers, at Phelps Lake and the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, and in the sprawled-out subdivisions along the Snake’s west bank.
Game and Fish works closely with major landowners in the area to try to keep numbers down and manage hunting on the landscape. Dealing with the crush of prospective elk hunters isn’t always easy. Tags that can be bought over the counter — a new development in 2017 — are unlimited in number. Licenses drawn through a lottery are desirable because they offer not only prospects of late-season freezer filler but a chance of hanging a trophy bull’s rack on the wall.
For Russ Lucas, one of Spring Gulch’s largest landowners, the selectivity has been a headache. Hunters who consistently pass on smaller bulls linger for weeks, he said, all while filling up his voicemail to inquire about permission and to learn what’s moving and where.
“We’re sick and tired of people who are trophy hunting,” Lucas said.
About 100 or so bull elk typically spend the summer on and around Lucas’ 550 acres, but they smarten up quickly. By Aug. 20 — just five days into the hunt — the herd has typically departed for safer, more densely developed ground farther north, he said.
“The elk aren’t migrating this way,” Lucas said. “They’ve learned to go around us. When they come down, they go through [Golf and Tennis] and right through to the park, every year.”
‘No pretty way to do it’
There are exceptions. On a Saturday in early January a herd he put at 1,000 head moved through Lucas’ pasture. They tore up every fence in their path, he said.
Stephens, the warden, was there while the herd was on the go, as were about 20 vehicles with people who stopped to view the mass movement. A couple of hunters were among the onlookers, and they opportunistically punched their tags that morning.
“Thankfully,” Stephens said, “that particular day, things went off without a hitch.”
Pat Brennan, a ranch hand who oversees hunting on the Mead Ranch, has seen the less savory side of the late-season pursuit. Last winter’s hunt was particularly difficult to manage and watch unfold, he said, because of a good-size herd that was trapped in Spring Gulch by deep snow. Starving and doing what they could to survive, the herd returned time and again to the Meads’ haystacks and feed lines, and hunting was the best tool to drive them away.
“They’d be in the haystack in the morning, then we’d kill a couple and they’d leave,” Brennan said. “About as quick as I could get whatever I was doing done, I’d call another hunter.
“There’s no pretty way to do it,” he said. “There’s just not.”
On one particularly morbid day, when nine elk were shot, the stress and sadness of dealing with the desperate animals almost caused him to break down.
Brennan’s boss, Brad Mead, and all other large landowners contacted for this story, perceive that there are too many elk. But dealing with elk and cattle, he said, is also “part of being here.”
An expensive thing
Mead has committed to voluntary measures drawn up by the Wyoming Livestock Board to try to keep the domestic and wild ungulates apart, so the threat of commingling affects everyday management. That means fencing every haystack, feeding cattle near buildings and taking steps to aid elk movement away from cows.
“Elk eating hay, to me, is an expensive thing,” Mead said. “But giving a cow brucellosis is catastrophic. I want to keep them apart.”
The heightened rate of brucellosis in Mead’s neighborhood elk comes from the century-old feeding operation that closely quarters the wapiti each winter on the opposite side of East Gros Ventre Butte.
The National Elk Refuge faces its own challenges from the ballooning population of animals that tend to stick close.
For 11 years refuge officials have been charged with driving down the number of elk that wind up on the property they manage. The goal is 5,000 — a number that, in theory, could allow the herd to survive on its own during a typical winter, without supplemental alfalfa. But the numbers have instead climbed higher than they have in decades, as a historically large proportion of the at-objective Jackson Elk Herd has been drawn to the refuge.
“This short-term migratory behavior is contributing to that challenge,” Cole said.
Hunting on the refuge’s 25,000 acres, he said, has been ineffective in part because the short-term migrants are the last part of the herd to show up each winter. Boost the pressure further and what gets hit are animals that summered farther afield, including a reeling population of elk that migrate all the way to Yellowstone.
“Ecologically speaking, we’re interested in preserving longer-distance migrations,” Cole said. “Globally, long-distance ungulate migrations are imperiled, and if we can’t preserve long-distance migrations in the Greater Yellowstone I’m not sure where we can.”
Cole supports Game and Fish’s full-throttled attempt to trim the lowland elk through hunting. Those are the animals, he said, most likely to commingle with cattle, damage private land and get hit by cars.
“For all of those reasons,” Cole said, “reducing that segment of elk would be beneficial to the refuge and probably to most people in the Jackson Hole community as well.”
The ‘step-down’ plan
Refuge officials have signaled changes in the works, possibly as soon as next winter, that threaten to exacerbate, or at least prolong, the challenge of living with several thousand elk in developed Jackson Hole. A “step-down” plan identifying how exactly managers intend to trim numbers to 5,000 is due out any time. A tactic that’s central to that effort, Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell said in December, is to “manipulate the length of the feeding season” — starting it later and stopping it earlier.
The likely result will be that the Jackson Elk Herd will at times redistribute, and not just to the wild country where it’s wanted. In the not-so-distant future, those displaced animals may show up in places like the Mead Ranch and neighborhoods farther north, a place that conservationist and Greater Yellowstone Coalition wildlife coordinator Chris Colligan calls home.
Colligan, who’s a hunter, said he knows the conflicts in hunt area 78 are real. He’s also confident that Jackson Hole has the wherewithal and tools to address those conflicts today.
“Jackson isn’t unique in this way, but in Jackson we’ve grown accustomed to not dealing with elk conflict because of feeding,” he said. “When you travel around to other communities with large herds of elk you see them in hayfields and golf courses and subdivisions.”
Cole foresees nothing changing quickly or easily. The philosophical, physical and ecological changes that made Jackson Hole more amenable to lowland elk formed over decades and continue to evolve today.
“In my opinion, it’s the matrix of subdivisions and what remaining ranches there are that are driving this phenomenon,” Cole said. “Because hunting is impossible in these low-density subdivisions.
“None of this is rocket science, really,” he said. “But I don’t see this getting any easier, particularly as more of the ranchland gets subdivided.”