Culture / Ecology / Life in Jackson Hole / Photography / Wildlife

Fat and happy

Bull elk, December 1, 2013

Bull elk, December 1, 2013

In Jackson Hole, elk are fat and happy- or are they?

In the fall, Elk migrate from higher elevations down to the valley floor. Historically, the elk would migrate through and overwinter in the area that is now the town of Jackson. When Jackson was established, the wintering grounds that once supported elk were greatly reduced, and the elk population began to fall. Dry summers followed by hard winters led to a dramatic decrease in the elk herd. In order to help the elk survive the winter, the National Elk Refuge was established in 1912. Since that time, we have been feeding the elk on the refuge.

Elk, December 1, 2013

Elk, December 1, 2013

Elk, December 1, 2013

Elk, December 1, 2013

As the winter progresses, biologists assess food availability on the refuge to determine when supplemental feeding should begin. The supplemental feeding begins once the available food drops below a critical level.

Supplemental feeding is a controversial topic. Those in favor of the feeding say that we have a responsibility to the elk because we reduced their overwintering habitat. Others support feeding because the presence of this charismatic megafuana in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem draws tourists. Others, such as hunters, support feeding so that the elk population is large enough to sustain hunting.

For as many people that are in favor of the feeding program, there are those that oppose the feeding program. One of the problems with feeding is the spread of disease. Elk that are being fed tend to congregate in larger numbers and greater densities, which are prime conditions for spreading disease. Brucellosis, a disease caused by a bacteria, is of particular concern because it is able to spread to livestock. Some ranchers are opposed to feeding because it increases the disease rates in elk, which can increase the chance of elk spreading disease to livestock. Another disease of particular concern is chronic wasting disease, which can decimate populations.

Another problem with the supplemental feeding program is the cost of feeding over 8,000 elk.

The controversy surrounding elk management is far from being solved, and like many management issues, it is likely that there isn’t a silver bullet for this problem. The only certainty is that the debate will continue as long as we have an elk population in Jackson Hole.

Bull elk, December 1, 2013

Bull elk, December 1, 2013

For a current update on the Elk Refuge, read the following report by Eric Cole:

2/20/2014 National Elk Refuge Biological Update

Elk Classification Count
NER and WGFD staff counted and classified elk on refuge feed grounds on 2/19/14.  There were 8,296 elk on feed and ratios per 100 cows were 24.2 mature bulls, 8.1 spike bulls, and 20.1 calves. For comparison last year we classified 6,285 elk on feed, and the 5 year moving average was 6,602. Elk classification information for native winter range and Gros Ventre feed grounds operated by WGFD is not yet available.  These data from other portions of the Jackson Elk Herd will allow is to determine if the increase in the number of elk on NER compared to last year represents a population increase in the Jackson Elk Herd, a distributional shift to the refuge from other areas, or some combination of both.

Bison Classification Count
NER, WGFD and Grand Teton National Park staff counted and classified bison on NER feed grounds on 2/18/14.  We counted 786 bison on feed and ratios per 100 cows were 31.2 adult bulls, 18.6 yearling bulls, and 48.1 calves.  For comparison last year there were 855 total bison in the Jackson Herd of which 830 were counted on NER feed grounds.  Flight based information on the number of bison wintering off feed in 2014 is not yet available, but a very high percentage of the Jackson Bison Herd is likely on NER feed grounds.  As mentioned in previous updates approximately 240  bison were harvested during the 2013 hunting season.  Harvest since 2007 appears to have arrested the logistic increase in bison numbers that occurred between the 1980s and 2007.  Since hunting began in 2007 the bison population has declined approximately 25%, but progress in reaching the 500 bison objective has been slow.

I counted 47 pronghorn east of Miller Butte on 2/15/14.  So far no mortality has been detected among the pronghorn that failed to migrate out of Jackson Hole this winter.  They appear to be foraging in snow free areas that opened up during the recent thaw.  However most areas on NER still have 2-10 inches of very dense crusty snow or ground ice, and pronghorn will not be able to access any significant forage in areas where snow persists.

Eric Cole
Refuge Biologist
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Elk Refuge
Jackson, WY
307.733.9212 ext. 7

One thought on “Fat and happy

  1. There are some fascinating points in time on this article but I dont know if I see all of them heart to heart. There is some validity but I’ll take maintain opinion till I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want extra! Added to FeedBurner as properly

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