Elk Feeding’s Fuzzy Future

After more than a century, changes are afoot to the elk-feeding regime on the National Elk Refuge, but it remains unclear how managers will meet their goals.

Elk Feeding’s Fuzzy Future

After more than a century, changes are afoot to the elk-feeding regime on the National Elk Refuge, but it remains unclear how managers will meet their goals.

By Mike Koshmrl

National Elk Refuge manager Brian Glaspell speaks with a group of locals who all have a stake in the number and whereabouts of elk in the valley, from a big game outfitter to a rancher, a former Wyoming Game and Fish Department employee, and even a retired refuge manager.

CLUMPS OF CURED, brown grasses poked through the lingering white remnants of winter on the National Elk Refuge, but conspicuously missing were the elk. It was the waning days of winter 2017-18, and Brian Glaspell, the 44-year-old bearded refuge manager who was then a year into the job, was explaining the complexities of taking the first-ever steps in the federal property’s 106-year history toward weaning elk off supplemental feed. His audience was a handful of folks who don’t always see eye-to-eye: lifelong big game outfitter Harold Turner, wildlife conservation watchdog Lloyd Dorsey, Wyoming Game and Fish Department expat Steve Kilpatrick, Spring Gulch cattle rancher Rita Lucas, and John Wilbrecht, who sat in Glaspell’s chair forty years ago. Everyone listened attentively.

“We did a good thing, for a long time, with the feed program,” Glaspell told the group. “We were successful. Elk were a rare critter when the refuge was established in this neck of the woods, and they certainly aren’t anymore. We did a good thing and it worked for one hundred years. The question now is, is that the continued right approach in light of everything else that we face?”

One pressure facing the National Elk Refuge is its own mandate: The 24,700-acre U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sanctuary must comply with a 2007 federal plan that calls for reducing elk numbers to 5,000, and bison to 500. The larger shaggy brown beasts, trimmed by a decade of hunting, are near that goal. But the tawny namesake ungulates that gather on the refuge for five months a year are trending in the opposite direction, and it’s problematic. Last winter there were more than 10,000 elk on the refuge.

“I think we are faced with significant change in the next 10 years, more so than any other time over the last 100 years.” 

It was in 1912 that Congress first appropriated $45,000 to start feeding elk on 2,760 acres along Flat Creek north of the Town of Jackson. There were tales of settlers being able to walk 2 miles on the backs of dead elk, and while that is undoubtedly an embellishment, wapiti did indeed drop by the thousands. Die-offs during severe winters are part of the natural ebb and flow of Rocky Mountain elk populations (98 percent of which are unfed), but as the National Elk Refuge and its feeding program grew over the years, this became easier to avoid.

Last winter, a higher proportion of the Jackson Elk Herd (the name collectively given to the approximately 11,000 elk that winter north of Highway 22) came to the refuge than at any other time in history; it was also the first time ever that the Gros Ventre River valley was virtually devoid of elk. (Most of these elk came instead to the National Elk Refuge.) It was the same story for natural winter range dispersed all around the valley: Elk stayed away from these areas and poured onto the refuge instead. Last winter was not an isolated one, but rather a continuation of a trend that managers say is undesirable. “We’re trying to understand the drivers of this trend of fewer and fewer elk wintering on native winter range,” says Doug McWhirter, Game and Fish’s regional wildlife coordinator, “and whether that’s something we can influence, or not. That’s central to our management, and one of our biggest questions, too.”   

JACKSON HOLE’S ELK are redistributing, and their new wintertime digs are on the National Elk Refuge. It’s unclear what’s causing this change, or how it can be reversed. Wolves, reintroduced to the ecosystem 23 years ago, are a frequent target for finger-pointing, but the science explaining the ongoing shift to the refuge is far from settled. At the same time, a long-feared disease with untold consequences for the herd just arrived to the valley. A decade ago, the “leading edge” of this degenerative neurological malady called chronic wasting disease (CWD) was near Thermopolis. It bounded nearer steadily since then, reaching Dubois, Pinedale, and Star Valley, and then, this November, Jackson Hole. Routine blood tests performed on a road-killed mule deer buck found near Kelly—only hundreds of yards from the refuge boundary—made its arrival official.  

CWD sounds like it was made for a horror movie. It’s always fatal, causes elk and other ungulates to literally waste away, and it’s spread by nearly indestructible “prions” that can survive outside their animal hosts in grasses and soil. Once CWD takes hold on a landscape, it’s there forever. “It just scares the heck out of me,” says Kilpatrick, a wildlife habitat specialist during his last years at Game and Fish. “The projections are, if we only have 13 percent prevalence in this Jackson Herd, in elk, we’re gonna see the population going down.” 

Wyoming manages 22 feedgrounds west of the ContinentalDivide. the Jackson Herd, which traditionally used four of these feedgrounds, is byfar the largest elk herd reliant on feed.

At least immediately, wildlife managers aren’t phasing out elk feedlots because of chronic wasting disease. It’s an open question how compatible elk feeding and CWD will be, but as a general rule the higher the density of animals, the faster the spread. Artificial feeding concentrates animals to a degree that’s not replicated in the natural environment. Wildlife managers like Glaspell, who from afar have watched CWD ravage deer populations in central Wyoming, don’t want to be caught sitting back and hoping for the best. “Wishful thinking is nice at home, but it’s irresponsible as a refuge management tool,” Glaspell says. “What keeps me up at night is being on the watch here when we get CWD and we’ve done nothing to prepare for it. That’s a zombie-apocalypse kind of scenario.”

THIS EVOLVING ELK herd and horrific, just-arrived disease are the backdrop of the refuge’s big task, which is to trim elk numbers and reduce feeding. Those goals go hand-in-hand: In a winter of typical severity, if there are only 5,000 elk, the science says that the herd can be sustained via natural vegetation. So that’s what the goal is: 5,000. This number came from the refuge’s 2007 “bison and elk management plan,” co-signed by Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest. A long legal fight and intensive “environmental impact statement” planning process preceded the plan, which gives the refuge 15 years to reach its goals (which go well beyond elk and bison numbers, but that’s for another story). That means, as the calendar turns this winter, the refuge will be 12 years into the plan, with just three years left to go. 

It’s not just time the refuge is working against. Another one of the Elk Refuge’s constraints moving forward is the overall number of elk in the Jackson Herd. The state of Wyoming has determined the herd should be about 11,000 animals; it uses hunting licenses to maintain this number. So right now, the Jackson Hole Elk Herd is exactly the size the state of Wyoming wants it to be. This in itself isn’t a problem; the problem arises when the entire herd flocks to the refuge like it did last winter. Then the refuge has more than double the number of elk its plan calls for. “I think that herd objective has to be on the table as we move forward and evaluate things,” Glaspell says, “but right now the plan that we’ve collectively committed to is that we’ll pursue that objective. The way to thread that needle is to provide other places for elk to winter and to find a way to buy tolerance.”

Meeting both the refuge and herd goals simultaneously will be a tough row to hoe, and you can count third-generation Triangle X dude rancher and outfitter Turner as among the skeptics. “I think it’s apple in the sky right now to think you’re going to get these elk to start using their historical winter ranges,” Turner says. The spring and fall elk migrations that stream by Turner’s backcountry hunting camp near the Teton Wilderness’ Enos Lake have fallen off in a big way over recent decades, and he’s fearful that a smaller overall Jackson Herd would affect the bottom line of himself and other outfitters. 

Lucas Bielby and Jay Hoggan drive their team out to feed about 1,000 elk that wintering in the Gros Ventre River valley.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is not planning to revisit its goals for the Jackson Herd for another two years, and if the agency does propose a smaller herd size to help the refuge it’s bound to get pushback. State wildlife officials aren’t legally tied to the refuge’s goals, but they’re doing what they can to help solve the quandary. “Although our intent is to still manage to the goals of the [refuge’s] bison and elk management plan, the way things are on the landscape right now we don’t feel that’s achievable,” says Brad Hovinga, who leads Game and Fish’s Jackson Region. “We are doing as much as we can to work toward those goals now. We’re trying to hold elk in the Gros Ventre, and trying to keep more elk from going to the refuge. But things are different now, and we just haven’t been able to make that happen.”  

INTUITIVELY, ELK WILL be more prone to bouncing around if feed is not in one centralized spot. When those wapiti are off searching for a meal, it’s possible that they’ll land on more fruitful pastures, like those belonging to the Lucases, one of the valley’s few remaining cattle ranching families. So it’s a tough sell. 

“They can’t be in our feedlines, they just can’t,” Lucas told the group assembled with Glaspell. “Our place would likely be the first place they go. It would be the first hit, and it would be reasonable to say that it would be economic devastation for us.” Her worry isn’t that the elk will eat feed meant for her cows—although that’s certainly a concern—but brucellosis, a disease common in Jackson Hole elk and transmissible from elk to cattle. 

Brucellosis causes cattle to abort their first-born fetuses. It’s nonfatal in adults, and in many ways a less scary disease than CWD, but nevertheless has grave consequences for producers who come down with an infected herd. Jackson Hole’s ranchers all recall the horror stories from when brucellosis spread into the Lockhart and Porter family’s ranch in 2004: Federal regulators required them to slaughter the entire herd. Nowadays, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s response to detections is much less draconian, but a breakout still necessitates an intensive quarantine and test-and-kill process. One Teton County cattle rancher—who the agencies have not named, per state law—is dealing with that process right now. A succession of breakouts in Wyoming could cost the state its brucellosis–free status, which can trigger more intensive testing statewide.

Ironically, close congregations created by feeding cause brucellosis’ spread among elk—and at the same time, stockmen are leery of ending feeding for fear it’ll cause elk to commingle with their cattle. It is feedgrounds that cultivated the strains of brucellosis the Jackson Herd carries, and keeps their contraction rates high. Already, Lucas deals with swarms of elk for much of the winter, and, armed with few other options, she allows hunters to pursue them relentlessly to keep them off her property. It’s a problem that has gradually worsened as the decades since settlement have passed, and the elk that live in the subdivision and ranchland lining the Snake River corridor have grown from a tiny fraction of the Jackson Herd to more than a third of its ranks. “We have elk all the time, and they travel in these little clusters like they do here,” Lucas says. “I don’t really see how it’s better for them to be at our place in a cluster than here in a cluster.” 

THE MECHANISM FOR winnowing down the refuge herd and reducing the tonnage of alfalfa pellets lined out across the landscape each winter is supposed to be “step-down” plans that tier off of the original, identifying specific tactics. Bureaucracy and politics have snagged those documents’ release for three years running, and as this story was being reported there was little hope they would be coming out anytime soon. In early August, Glaspell lost his boss, Greg Sheehan, who resigned from the Trump administration’s top job at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lacking direction, the refuge manager is in a tough place to take action. “A lot of other similar kinds of decisions are appropriately delegated to the refuge manager,” Glaspell says, “but in this case we’re talking about making some changes to an iconic refuge and to a program that’s been in place for one hundred years.”

Though the step-down plans are still hypothetical, what they likely will entail is pushing elk feeding later into the winter and ending it earlier. Currently, feeding usually starts by the last week of January, and continues to late March. 

Still, until the dole is actually delayed, there’s no knowing how Jackson Hole’s storied elk herd will respond. Last winter there was no feeding for the first time in 38 years, but this was because there were historically mild conditions at low elevations so it’s an imperfect indicator. “This year we learned we can host the entire herd,” Glaspell says. Despite no feeding happening, 97 percent of the herd either migrated onto the refuge or immediately adjacent, in the Curtis Canyon and Flat Creek areas. 

Last year was actually Jackson Hole’s second consecutive outlier winter. The prior season, of 2016-17, swung in the opposite direction—it had the severity of yesteryear. There were brutally frigid spells and a 160 percent-of-normal snowpack that grew so deep even at low elevations the entire year’s crop of mule deer fawns in much of western Wyoming died. Even on the refuge, where feeding started in January and where elk could fill their guts with alfalfa daily, one in five calves succumbed to the elements. There’s no saying how bad the mortality would have been in the absence of feeding—but it would only swing in one direction, which is toward more dead elk.  

In winters as severe as ’16-’17, feeding will not stop in the foreseeable future, Glaspell insists. “We are not advocating starvation,” he says. “Never have, never will, and that’s the bottom line. If and when we start moving forward with any of these plans, it’s not like we flip the switch and everything’s different on the landscape tomorrow. It will be a very slow process where we make tiny steps and then we review the impact.” 

But some conservationists and biologists worried for the herd’s future cringe at the slow pace of change. Seven months before its arrival Kilpatrick said, “CWD’s going to get here, and the public will be ready to try something different. But until then, these guys have a job I would never want: trying to keep wildlife healthy and numerous and the public happy at the same time.” Author and biologist Bruce Smith, a former National Elk Refuge staffer, has long advocated for a total cessation of the feeding program and he scolded his former employer’s parent agency for dragging its feet and creating a situation where the Jackson Herd is more reliant on the refuge than ever before. “The Department of the Interior has wasted the last 11 years by not beginning the process right after the plan went into effect,” Smith says. “Why have they waited and wasted all these years? There’s no reason why the Jackson Elk Herd couldn’t be the first of Wyoming’s elk herds that are currently fed to be unfed.” (Besides the federal-run National Elk Refuge, Wyoming manages 22 feedgrounds west of the Continental Divide. Altogether, about 20,000 elk spread across six different herds in northwestern Wyoming are fed, though the Jackson Herd, which traditionally used four of these feedgrounds, is by far the largest.) 

Kilpatrick’s hope is that the Jackson Hole community comes together to try to solve the problem of scaling back a feeding program that supports an elk herd that’s more bunched up than ever before. Collaborative roundtable-type approaches are a plan worth considering, he says. “I think we are faced with significant change in the next 10 years, more so than any other time over the last 100 years,” Kilpatrick says. 

High above the National Elk Refuge, Doug Brimeyer and Barb Long of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department use spotting scopes to tally elk during the annual census.

While a complete phase-out of the elk-feeding program isn’t in the cards anytime soon, Glaspell says the refuge’s staff is “ravenous” to get going on some type of change. “It took us one hundred years to get to this point,” he says. “We’re turning an aircraft carrier. It’s going to take some work and a little more time than a lot of us would hope for, but I’m confident that we’re going to do it. We have the preponderance of scientific opinion and a couple decades of effort from refuge staff and other Fish and Wildlife folks. It all points in one direction, which is making some change.”

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