National Elk Refuge:
Elk, Sleigh Rides, and Winter Fun
Northeast of Jackson at 532 Cache Street. 733-9212.

In late October and early November, thousands of elk begin their traditional migration from high summer range in Grand Teton National Park, southern Yellowstone National Park, and the neighboring national forests to lower elevation winter range in Jackson Hole. Heavy snows force the animals to lower elevations in search of food, and usually more than 7,500 elk make their way to the National Elk Refuge to spend the winter. With a longstanding history, the National Elk Refuge attracts attention from today’s visitors with exceptional wildlife viewing as well as sleigh rides, wagon rides, and other outdoor recreation.

Establishment of the National Elk Refuge
Hundreds of years before the settlment of this country, elk ranged from the eastern states through central and western North America. They grazed the open prairies, mountain valleys, and foothills. As settlers pushed slowly westward, the distribution of the elk was rapidly reduced to the western mountains. By 1900, elk had disappeared from more than 90 percent of their original range.

When settlers arrived in Jackson Hole in the late 1800s, there may have been as many as 25,000 elk in the entire valley. The town of Jackson was built in a large portion of elk winter range.

Establishment of farms and ranches further reduced elk from their traditional wintering areas. Livestock competed for winter food, and hungry elk raided haystacks. These severe conflicts between humans and elk diminished the Jackson elk population.

In the early 1900s, severe winters with deep crusted snow also took a serious toll on the wintering elk. The refuge was created in 1912 as a result of public interest in the survival of the Jackson elk herd. Today the refuge continues to preserve much of the remaining elk winter range in the valley, approximately one-quarter of the original Jackson Hole winter range. Elk stay on the refuge for approximately six months each winter. An eight-foot high fence along the main highway and along the northern border of town prevents elk from moving through Jackson and onto private lands.

The nearly 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is one of more than 500 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. This system was established to preserve a national network of lands and waters for the conservation and management of the fish, wildlife, and plants of the United States for the benefit of present and future generations.

The Jackson Elk Herd, estimated at approximately 14,000 animals, probably owes its prosperity to local citizens who were here about 1906-1912.

Following the removal of most of the beaver by trappers prior to 1840, the Jackson Hole country was virtually uninhabited by settlers until 1884. Only hunting/gathering Native Americans (mostly Shoshone, Bannock, and Arapahoe) summered here until about the end of the Civil War (1865). Sixty-four people lived in Jackson Hole when the Wyoming Territory became a state in 1890. Nearby Yellowstone had become the world’s first national park in 1872. By the late 1890s and early 1900s, conversion of historic elk winter range to domestic livestock use began to pose a hardship situation for the elk.

However, even before the Jackson Hole environment was changed somewhat by the arrival of settlers, significant numbers of elk died from starvation in winter. Early hunters and settlers noted that winters of unusually heavy snow resulted in death by starvation for thousands of elk. Survival of large numbers of elk was complicated further by the severe winters of 1909,1910, and 1911 that put the herd in serious trouble. In order to survive, the elk raided ranchers’ haystacks, but many still starved to death. Although the ranchers did not want to see the elk die, they could not afford to lose their hay and remain in the ranching business.

The first official suggestion for a permanent elk refuge in Jackson Hole was made in 1906 by the Wyoming State Game Warden, D.C. Nowling, who, following his retirement from that post, became the first manager of the National Elk Refuge. Area residents gained statewide sympathy for the continuing elk losses, and appeals for assistance spread through many other states. As a result, in 1911 the Wyoming Legislature asked Congress to cooperate with the State in appropriations for “feeding, protecting, and otherwise preserving the big game which winters in great numbers within the confines of the State of Wyoming.” Less than a month later, appropriated $20,000 for feeding, protecting, and transplanting elk and ordered an investigation of the elk situation in Wyoming.

After this assessment by the Federal Government, $45,000 was appropriated by an act of Congress on August 10, 1912 for the purchase of lands and maintenance of a refuge for wintering elk.

By 1916, from a combination of public domain lands and private lands, 2,760 acres had been acquired for the National Elk Refuge. For more than ten years no additions were made to the refuge itself. In 1918, the U.S. Forest Service lands adjacent to the east side of the refuge were classified as big game winter range, and although they were not made part of the refuge, livestock grazing was restricted.

In 1972, Congress accepted title to 1,760 acres of private ranch lands that had been acquired and donated by the Izaak Walton League of America, expanding the refuge to 4,520 acres.

Congress, in a 1935 act that became known as the “Six Million Dollar Fund,” designated money for purchase of wildlife lands throughout the United States. From this, about 16,400 additional acres of private lands were acquired for the National Elk Refuge. Also, 3,783 acres of public domain lands were added by Presidential Executive orders in 1935 and 1936.

Today, the refuge consists of nearly 25,000 acres devoted to elk winter range. This represents the last remaining elk winter range in Jackson Hole.

The portion of the Jackson Elk Herd that winters on the National Elk Refuge averages approximately 7,500 animals yearly. Elk are on the refuge for about six months each year from November to May, freeranging for about 3.5 months and using supplemental feed for about 2.5 months, usually from late January until April.

Supplemental feeding began in 1910 when the Wyoming Legislature appropriated $5,000 to purchase all available hay in the valley to feed the elk. The supply of hay was inadequate and hundreds of elk died that winter. This was followed in 1911 with feed for elk from the $20,000 appropriated by Congress. Supplemental feed has been provided for the elk in all but nine winters since then. In 1975, a change was made from baled hay to pelletized alfalfa hay.

A Presidential “Commission on the Conservation of the Elk of Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” was established and active from 1927 through 1935. Its membership, which included the Governor of Wyoming, developed the following tenet: The Jackson Elk Herd in the State of Wyoming is a national resource combining economic, aesthetic, and recreation values in which the State of Wyoming, the Federal Government, private citizens, and civic and sportsmen’s organizations are actively and intensely interested.

In 1958, currently active Jackson Hole Cooperate Elk Studies Group was formed, composed of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service. The principal purpose of this group is to coordinate plans, programs, and findings of studies, and to provide an exhance of ideas, information, and personnel to study the elk herd and its habitat. All four agencies have legal responsibilities for management of the elk herd and its habitat. A better understanding and appreciation of individual agency objectives and responsibilities and closer cooperation have been attained since the establishment of the study group.

The refuge is dedicated primarily to the perpetuation of the nation’s majestic elk, for us and future generations to enjoy.

Refuge Management
Refuge grasslands are managed to produce as much natural forage for elk as possible through extensive irrigation, seeding, prescribed burning, and other practices. These management practices enhance elk winter habitat and reduce the need for supplemental feeding. However, when deep or crusted snow prevents the elk from grazing, or the natural forage is depleted, refuge personnel feed the herds pelletized alfalfa. These 2- to 3-inch pellets have higher nutritional value than average baled hay and are easier for refuge staff to store and distribute to the elk. Elk are usually fed about 7 to 8 pounds per animal per day, which equals about 30 tons per day for a herd of 7,500 elk.The elk receive supplemental alfalfa for approximately 2.5 months during an average winter.

The number of elk wintering on the refuge must be limited to avoid overuse of the range and to reduce the potential spread of diseases common when herd animals are crowded. Refuge staff, in consultation with the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, have determined that a maximum of 7,500 (more than half the total Jackson elk herd) elk is optimum for the refuge. Herd numbers are maintained through a late fall controlled hunt on the refuge and adjacent public lands.

Elk Facts
  • Elk are the second largest antlered animals in the world; only moose are larger. Bull elk are 4.5 to 5 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 550 to 800 pounds. Cow elk weigh from 450 to 600 pounds. The refuge elk herd consists of approximately 20% bulls, 65% cows, and 15% calves.
  • The majority of adult elk on the refuge are between 3 and 10 years old. The oldest animals in the herd are 15-30 years old, but these individuals represent a very small part of the refuge population. The age on an elk can be determined by examining milk tooth replacement, wear on permanent teeth, and annual dental rings.
  • While most members of the deer family are primarily browsers (feeding on twigs and leaves of shrubs and trees), elk are both browsers and grazers, feeding extensively on grasses and forbs, as well as shrubs.
  • Grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, wolves, and coyotes prey on elk. By weeding out the weak, predators help maintain healthy, vigorous elk herds.

More Elk Facts

  • Adult bull elk have large, branched antlers. Contrary to popular belief, there is no exact relationship between age and number of antler points, but the number of points may be used to estimate an animal’s age. Bulls between 1 and 2 years old have short, unbranched antlers called spikes. By age 3, bulls usually have antlers with three to four points on each side. Older bulls carry antlers with five, six, or sometimes seven points on each side. Mature bulls with six points per side are called royal bulls, and those with seven points are called imperial bulls. On rare occasions you might see a bull displaying antlers with eight points on each side; these bulls are known as monarchs.
  • Large bulls shed their antlers during March and April every year, while the smaller bulls lose their antlers during April or early May. Mice, squirrels, and other animals chew on the shed antlers to get needed minerals. Antlers dropped on the refuge are collected by local Boy Scouts, who sell them at an annual public auction (the 3rd Saturday in May) to help raise money for both the scouts and for winter elk feed management. The public may not collect or remove antlers from the refuge.
  • New antlers begin to grow as soon as the old ones are shed. They develop through the summer and reach maturity by mid-August. By this time, the antler’s “velvet,” or outer blood-rich skin has dried, and the bull rubs the dead velvet off on small trees and shrubs. A bull’s antlers are hard and shiny by the fall breeding season (the “rut”).
  • Elk leave the lower elevations in April and May, following the receding snowline back into the cool, high country, where they spend the summer. These animals travel distances varying from a few miles up to 100 miles during migration from the refuge to Grand Teton National Park, southern Yellowstone National Park, and national forest lands to the north and northeast of Jackson Hole. A few elk remain near the wooded areas of the refuge during the summer months.
  • From late May to mid-June, cows bear their young in secluded thickets on higher terrain. A cow typically has one calf that weighs 30 to 40 pounds. The calves are reddish colored and spotted at birth. Very few calves are born on the refuge, since the majority of elk migrate back to the high country before calving occurs.
  • The breeding season (or “rut”) occurs in September and early October, while the elk are in the high country. At this time, the high-pitched “bugling” of the mature bulls can be heard as they gather harems of cows and challenge rival bulls. During the rut, bulls vigorously defend their harems of half a dozen to 15 or more cows.
  • In late fall, snow begins to fall in the high country, and the elk herds migrate back to their lower elevation winter range.

Wildlife and Their Habitat
Refuge habitat includes grassy meadows and marshes spread across the valley floor, timbered areas bordering the Gros Ventre (GroVONT) River, and sagebrush and rock outcroppings along the foothills. This habitat diversity provides a variety of food, water, and shelter that support the rich mixture of wildlife species found at the refuge.

While elk are the primary reason the refuge was established, 47 species of mammals are found here year-around or during seasonal migration to and from surrounding areas. Moose, bighorn sheep, bison, and mule deer are common winter residents on the refuge. Wolves, coyotes, badgers, and Uinta ground squirrels are also seen. Other common wildlife species include muskrat, beaver, porcupine, long-tailed weasel, and voles or meadow mice.

Visitor Opportunities
The National Elk Refuge lies northeast of the town of Jackson, Wyoming, and directly south of Grand Teton National Park. The winter season, between November and April, is the best time to view elk and other wildlife on the refuge. To protect refuge wildlife and their habitats, public use activities are primarily confined to the main, unpaved roads on the refuge. Paved turnouts on the west side of the refuge along U.S. Highway 26 (leading to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks) are provided for viewing and photographing refuge wildlife.

From mid-December through late March, daily horse-drawn sleigh rides (or wagons, if weather conditions require them) offer visitors a close-up look at the elk herd. Sleigh rides begin at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, two- and-a-half miles north of Jackson on U.S. Highway 26, 89, 191. Visitors to the museum can also learn about elk and management of the refuge through a slide show, videos, exhibits, and by talking with refuge personnel. Sleigh riders are encouraged to bundle up, since they are likely to be exposed to very cold temperatures and chilling winds.

Limited hiking opportunities exist on the refuge, and there is no overnight parking or camping. Camping is available in nearby national parks and national forests.

Reprinted from “The Ultimate Wyoming Atlas and Travel Encyclopedia”. Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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