Bull elk

Bull elk graze the open grasses of the National Elk Refuge in 2018. Hundreds of hunters will head to the hills in pursuit, starting Thursday.

Scores of hunters will be hitting the trails starting Thursday, glassing meadows and timber when the elk rifle season opens on most public lands surrounding Jackson Hole.

Wildlife managers do their best to keep tabs on populations of mule deer, elk, pronghorn and other big-game species, but estimating numbers of animals is a separate matter than how hunters will fare. A whole lot of guesswork goes into predicting hunter success, since it hinges on factors such as weather and the ever-changing distribution of wild animals.

“I just find myself saying every year, ‘Wow, this is an unusual year,’ either weather-wise or ungulate movement-wise,” said Doug McWhirter, regional wildlife coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “Well, maybe this wild variation is the norm.”

Hunters can encounter a different abundance of animals from one drainage to the next, partly because of the migratory nature of Jackson Hole’s ungulates. Those migrations lead populations of species like mule deer to diverse and distant seasonal ranges, and conditions — and survival and productivity — can vary widely due to geographic differences in snowpack, pressure from predators and the quality of the habitat.

Generally, elk herds in the valley are thriving, with populations right around the objective goals set by the wildlife managers.

Mule deer, broadly, have struggled more, and numbers are sagging below the desired level because of a few recent big winters that killed animals by the thousand. The opportunity to hunt pronghorn right around Jackson Hole is more limited, but, as with deer, populations on a regional level have been driven down by recent harsh winters.

Read on for summaries that can help you predict and plan your hunting season. Information included is courtesy of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Jackson Elk Herd

Around 9,600 wapiti were tallied during a midwinter assessment, and although that count is nearly 15% less than the 11,000-animal herd objective it’s suspected that many elk were missed because they were well dispersed on the landscape.

As in past years, elk that migrate far from the National Elk Refuge are rearing fewer calves than those that summer in southern Grand Teton National Park and on private land near the Snake River.

“Managing for these widely varying population segments has been and will continue to be a challenge in the Jackson Herd,” Game and Fish said in its hunting season preview.

The rifle season for elk is already underway in the Teton Wilderness, but through Tuesday morning McWhirter had not yet touched base with his wardens who were patrolling the open zones.

“As usual, it’s weather dependent,” McWhirter said. “Who knows what we’re going to see this year. We’re just trying to keep track of things the best we can.”

Fall Creek Elk Herd

Jackson Hole mountain ranges south of town and Highway 22 are the turf of the Fall Creek Elk Herd, and in those zones animals were more numerous than they were a winter earlier.

Elk surveys in the Fall Creek Herd yielded approximately 600 more elk in 2018-19, compared with the mild winter of 2017-18. Although numbers are slightly below the herd goal, McWhirter said the populations have been climbing, a trend that’s “pleasing.”

As a result, resident elk hunters are being offered a “few more days” of “any elk” hunting, which means that cows and calves are fair game in elk hunt units 84 and 85 later into the season.

“We’re encouraged with what we’re seeing,” McWhirter said.

Mule deer

Jackson Hole is a melting pot of migratory mule deer during the fall hunting season, with animals trickling in from winter ranges in the Bighorn, Green and Wind River basins as well as Idaho land clear across the Tetons.

“We’ve got deer going to probably four different herd units,” McWhirter said, “and depending on where they winter, there can be vastly different conditions.”

Two of the most popular areas in the region for mule deer hunting are occupied by the Wyoming Range and Sublette mule deer herds, which, respectively, live on the west and east side of the Green River Basin.

Both herds, McWhirter said, have struggled to recover from dramatic population declines in the winter of 2016-17, though there are significant geographic variations.

The rifle season for mule deer on most public lands near Jackson Hole started Sept. 15 and goes until Oct. 6. It is buck only, and there is a point restriction, with only animals that have at least three points on one side being legal.

McWhirter is seeing early signs that hunters are faring OK. At a hunter check station near Alpine, harvest is a “little bit up” over a year ago.

“We’re checking some really nice buck deer,” he said, “and one thing that’s noticeable is that there was a lot of deer getting killed that are still in full velvet.”

He suspected the cause was from the late onset of spring.

Pronghorn

Jackson Hole’s pronghorn are also largely migratory, summering in the valley and wintering in the Green River basin along with the tens of thousands of other animals from the Sublette Herd.

Although hunter success is good, there are limited hunting opportunities in Jackson Hole. Only 20 licenses will be offered for the 2019 season, similar to recent years.

Populations are about stagnant, and hunting seasons did not change in the areas used by the Sublette Herd, which is still recovering from the harsh winter of 2016-17. Although it remains difficult to acquire an antelope license, those who do draw a tag should experience high success rates.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@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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