Jackson Hole tries "unnatural' elk management

  • Winter ranges of greater Yellowstone elk herds

    Diane Sylvain
  • Elk gather behind food truck at National Elk Refuge

    Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
  -Three, four, five. There are a lot of them!" says the driver of the minivan with Georgia plates parked beside the highway. Behind us, a screen of spruces hides the famous peaks of Grand Teton National Park. In front of us, on a sagebrush plain golden with June flowers, are the rich brown coats and creamy rumps of a band of cow elk.

"Eight, nine, 10 - I see 15!" he exclaims. "Look, that one has a little one with her!'

Elk mesmerize visitors to Jackson Hole.

"It's not just hunters that want to see elk," says Bridger-Teton National Forest biologist Adrian Villaruz, "but the general public - people who come from cities and suburbs where their major activities are shopping. They come out here and say, "Hey, I saw this on TV!" "

But are these animals as wild as people imagine?

Some 20 miles south of here, on the outskirts of the town of Jackson, the highway is bordered by an eight-foot wire fence. Behind this fence last winter, these same elk were jostling like cattle for alfalfa pellets spread by the managers of Jackson Hole's National Elk Refuge.

While miles away Yellowstone's northern elk herd starved to death by the hundreds, the Jackson Hole herd, 11,000 strong, munched placidly on its kibbles. The yearly spectacle is a big hit with tourists, and some folks have suggested Yellowstone National Park managers would save themselves a lot of trouble by feeding the northern elk and bison herds.

But feeding elk creates as many problems as the park's hands-off approach to elk management, called natural regulation. Wildlife managers and environmentalists say feeding the elk keeps their numbers dangerously high, and that the animals, a symbol of wildness, are becoming domesticated.

Caught between an elk and

a hungry place

The valley of Jackson Hole acts as the neck of an enormous funnel that opens northward toward the southern end of Yellowstone National Park. Herds of elk follow this funnel south from the highlands of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the Teton Wilderness and the Gros Ventre River drainage each fall to feed in the lower elevation valley, where winters are much milder.

The first settlers in the area saw the advantages of the same spot, and their ranches and the town of Jackson soon blocked the funnel's neck. At the same time, stock growers wiped out the herd's natural predators. Since elk were protected from hunting in Yellowstone National Park, their numbers grew exponentially.

During the winter of 1909, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 elk converged on Jackson Hole. By spring, the valley was so full of their carcasses, one rancher claimed he walked a mile on them.

The following year, cattle growers persuaded the Wyoming legislature to pay to feed the elk that were roaming onto their ranches, but hundreds still died. In 1911, the state asked Congress for help.

Nationwide, hunters had reduced elk to 20 percent of their former numbers. Northwest Wyoming was one of the animal's last sanctuaries. Consequently, in 1912, Congress established an elk refuge on 1,000 acres of public land north of Jackson. The intent was to give the elk herds natural winter range, so wildlife managers wouldn't need to feed them. But feeding soon resumed when it became apparent that the refuge was not big enough to support the herd.

Today, the National Elk Refuge has grown to 25,000 acres, but the problem remains intractable. Last winter, more than 11,000 elk ate 2,349 tons of alfalfa on the refuge. The feed cost the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department $323,000.

The state of Wyoming also feeds elk at 22 feedgrounds in western Wyoming.

Elk in the front yard

Just as elk funnel into Jackson Hole from the high country, hunters, recreationists and tourists flock to the valley's woods, trails, boutiques and latte shops. Everybody watches the elk.

How much the herd contributes to Jackson's economy is hard to say. Hunters alone spend $4.4 million in the area each year, according to the Wyoming Fish and Game Department. Last year, more than 800,000 people visited the National Elk Refuge. During the ski season, a sleigh ride through the feeding herd is a popular adjunct to the nearby slopes.

"People are getting a lot of money off these elk," says Andrea Lococo, local representative of the Fund For Animals.

But such an unnatural concentration of wildlife creates many problems. For one thing, elk are hard on aspen groves, which provide homes for many small mammals and songbirds. If the elk herd remains at its present size, says the Forest Service's Villaruz, "you could lose your aspens."

Another problem is disease. Nearly 40 percent of Jackson Hole's elk show signs of exposure to brucellosis, the ailment that led the state of Montana to kill more than 1,000 bison around Yellowstone last winter. "Brucellosis is an artifact of feedgrounds," according to refuge manager Barry Reiswig. On native range, only 2 percent of elk are exposed to the disease.

The disease wildlife managers fear most is tuberculosis, found in game-farm elk in other states and readily transmissible to humans. Although tuberculosis has not turned up in the Jackson Hole herd yet, once introduced, it would spread like wildfire.

Finally, there is the question of whether elk that spend their winters on a feedline remain wild. An elk whose greatest daily challenge is bulling its way through a crowd to a pile of pellets is probably different than one that winters on native range.

According to Montana elk expert Terry Lonner, Jackson Hole elk are approaching the status of "defiled wild' - animals that depend on people to survive. Some of the elk that winter on the refuge are over 20 years old. Last winter, only about 2 percent of the herd succumbed to the harsh weather.

"Any elk with two legs can drag itself to the feedline in the winter," says Reiswig.

Weaning elk off the feedlines

Since 1958, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Forest Service and the state of Wyoming have coordinated their management of elk through the Jackson Hole Cooperative Studies Group. Their main tool is hunting, which is allowed even in the southeast part of Teton National Park. But despite longer hunting seasons and cow elk hunts, the herd continues to boom.

The Grand Teton park herd is of particular concern. The elk have learned to elude hunters by waiting in the protected part of the park until darkness falls, then making a run for the refuge. This herd takes the lion's share of the subsidized feed. Reiswig estimates that half the animals he feeds come from the park. Jackson Hole outfitter Paul Gilroy puts the figure closer to three-quarters.

Now, some wildlife managers and environmentalists want to wean the elk off their feedlines. Meredith Taylor of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition calls the elk refuge "nothing but an agency game farm." Ending the feeding would be "a bitter pill to swallow now," says Lloyd Dorsey of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, "but it will benefit future generations."

Dead bodies always look bad, however. "People see two dead elk out there, and I start to get phone calls," says Reiswig. "I would rather do nothing all winter. Running all these feed trucks is not my idea of a good time. I'm concerned about the impacts feeding is having on these animals." But if the feeding stops, he says, 6,000 to 8,000 elk would starve to death, "right in front of town."

While plans to irrigate the elk refuge may allow it to support more animals, keeping the animals in balance with the range will mean decreasing the herd. "We can wean the elk off feeding," says Reiswig. "Weaning the people off feeding may be more challenging."

*Lynne Bama

Lynne Bama writes from Wapiti, Wyoming.

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