Elk feeding ‘essential,’ just not yet needed
Alfalfa-spewing elk-feeding trucks and the federal employees who drive them will be deemed “essential” and thus unaffected by the partial government shutdown, but so far the herds are OK without the help.
National Elk Refuge Biologist Eric Cole has been allowed to work part time to determine when feeding is needed, and he has found that grasses are still plentiful and accessible for the approximately 2,800 elk congregated on the refuge’s south end.
“What we’ve had going for us is we haven’t had any significant thaw-freeze cycles, like we often do,” Cole said. “So in the areas where animals haven’t foraged before, they can still access the grass.”
The weekend melt, he said, wasn’t severe enough to significantly ice over the snowpack once it cools back off, which can lock in grasses and send elk looking for easier food sources — like ranchers’ hay.
“Typically, it would take more than a couple of days in the 30s and 40s to significantly increase snow density,” Cole said. “It probably had a modest effect, but I don’t think it changed things dramatically.”
Government-orchestrated elk feeding, a 107-year-old tradition on the refuge, typically starts the last week of January and persists for the better part of two months.
Elsewhere in Jackson Hole, at feedlots the state of Wyoming operates, elk feeding has been underway for weeks, even months.
About 1,500 or 1,600 elk are sticking tight to the Gros Ventre River drainage’s three feedgrounds this winter, after a near-complete exodus the year before. Contracted feeders on horse-drawn sleighs started slinging hay at the sites the last week of November, and the tactic appears to be working.
“We have a big group at the Fish Creek feedground, and some elk at Alkali and Patrol Cabin as well,” Game and Fish regional disease biologist Ben Wise said. “We also have elk scattered out on native range from Bacon Ridge all the way to the Kelly highlands. It’s a good winter for elk. There’s a decent snowpack up high, but down low we’ve had a lot of wind and a lot of sunny days to keep things open.”
Hay started hitting the ground between Dec. 20 and the first week of January at the four state-run feedgrounds south of Jackson: South Park, Horse Creek, Camp Creek and Dog Creek.
Game and Fish biologists work with Cole to determine when exactly to begin feeding operations on the National Elk Refuge. Generally, the decision is made when the estimated amount of forage dips below 300 pounds per acre. As of the last assessment, on Jan. 15, sampling at index sites scattered around the refuge’s south end suggested there were still 1,145 pounds per acre.
The 2,800 elk Cole observed on the southern refuge flats were joined by an estimated 1,500 or so animals in the hillier, northern reaches of the 24,700-acre federal property.
Based on the recent track record, the likelihood is many more elk will pile on once the ongoing bison hunt ceases and feeding operations start. Because of the historically mild conditions at lower elevations, the National Elk Refuge skipped its elk-feeding program last winter for the first time in 38 years. But almost the entire Jackson Elk Herd showed up anyway: More than 10,250 wapiti gathered, more than double the refuge’s goal of just 5,000 elk.