FEATURE: Wapiti Welfare

By on December 8, 2015

Pressure from predators and interest groups challenge elk managers.

Elk are fed in relatively tight groupings because they eat fast and pellets degrade quickly in snow. It also ensures calves get a better chance at feed. (Photo: Lori Iverson, USFWS)

Elk are fed in relatively tight groupings because they eat fast and pellets degrade quickly in snow. It also ensures calves get a better chance at feed. (Photo: Lori Iverson, USFWS)

A few years ago, at least two elk did something astounding. Out of 50 radiocollared wapiti in the Buffalo Valley, this adventurous pair climbed out of the valley, over the Continental Divide, and wintered in the upper Wind River. Those animals reconnected with an ancient migration pattern thought to be long lost to time. More notable still, they made the conscious decision to forgo the lure of a lunch line headed to the National Elk Refuge, in favor of a more natural winter in wild country.

In fact, eight of the 50 elk tracked in the Teton Wilderness near Moran have switched up where they winter over the past few years. It’s an encouraging sign for wildlife managers who are desperate for some way to teach elk there is a preferred alternative to what has become a highly debated handout on government land.

Refuge Catch-22

As a multiagency management plan nears finalization, officials from Grand Teton National Park, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bridger-Teton National Forest and Wyoming Game and Fish Department are cooperatively trying to agree on an approach to wildlife management that will ensure the health and longevity of the most iconic elk herd in the world.

At the core of any discussion regarding elk in Jackson Hole is the artificial feeding program and sanctuary created in 1912. The elk refuge is seated geographically between national forest and park lands, with its antlered inhabitants within spotting scope distance of Game and Fish offices.

Supplemental feeding began as a knee-jerk reaction to particularly brutal, back-to-back-to-back Jackson Hole winters from 1908 to 1911. After that the feeding program was entrenched as tradition and eventually became a culture of welfare seen by some as necessary due to development encroachment of historic winter habitat. Others believe it unnatural and ultimately detrimental to ungulate species that have come to depend on the assistance.

There is nothing on earth to compare it to. Thousands of native animals are fed each winter like cattle yet return to the high country in the spring fully wild. Highly huntable and viewable for Jackson’s eco-tourism industry, herd numbers are pushed to the max by state interests, including the Game and Fish Department, with the backing of outfitters and ranchers concerned with keeping elk out of their haystacks and disease from their livestock.

But artificial feeding has become a self-perpetuating problem. Elk flock to the valley floor once snow covers available forage at higher elevations. To keep them out of subdivisions and off roadways, it’s crucial the elk be fed in a concentrated area, some say. But are elk being pulled to town by the lure of a free lunch? Or are they being chased from natural forage by predators? Would they eventually push through to points south, remembering a forgotten migration corridor, or did elk ever really migrate in great numbers and distances hundreds of years ago? And will thousands of elk drop dead if feeding is ended?

Migration deliberation

Doug Brimeyer looks over a migration map from the 1950s. (Photo: Jake Nichols)

Doug Brimeyer looks over a migration map from the 1950s. (Photo: Jake Nichols)

“How far they used to have migrated back in pre-settlement times is pretty speculative,” said elk refuge biologist Eric Cole. “Probably some elk did migrate long distances beyond Jackson Hole. But we don’t know for sure. All we know is there were a lot of elk in the Red Desert. Where they were coming from is more speculative.”

Veteran environmental advocate and conservation director of the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club, Lloyd Dorsey, believes elk have several choices when it comes to eking out a living on the land come winter. The reason they don’t — and the data indicates long-distance migrations are becoming increasingly rare — is the allure of the refuge.

“It’s likely many elk passed through the valley and went elsewhere into easier lands to sustain themselves. In all directions of the compass from the Buffalo Valley, the Gros Ventre, the upper Green River basin, the upper Wind River, or the Sand Creek country in eastern Idaho near Idaho Falls and Ashton. Those are all ancestral wintering grounds for elk, and luckily those migration routes are still intact,” Dorsey said. “But that lure of hay bales and alfalfa pellets is very strong. You can kind of keep intensifying that compulsion to feed through the rationale that most of elk winter range in Jackson Hole has already been developed. It’s very real. But elk are still are able to make other decisions.”

Steve Cain studied the habits of elk and other wildlife for more than 25 years as the senior biologist for Grand Teton National Park. He is one scientist who believes elk still remember where to find food when the snow flies.

“They are pretty savvy about making a living on the landscape,” Cain said. “Winters here are tough, and that’s why I’m one of the people who believe elk probably migrated in significant numbers from here down to the Green River basin. Whether they went all the way to the Red Desert or not I’m not sure anybody knows.

“But every now and then you get these little snippets of information. While studying pathways in the park we had an elk that was collared near Moose that went through South Park and all the way out to almost Idaho Falls near Heise. That’s an area that’s known as a former significant winter range for ungulates back in the early settlement days. If one elk out of 30 that we collared did it, I guarantee you it wasn’t the only one. This knowledge of an old migratory pathway still exists. It’s really interesting stuff.”

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CWD encroaches ever closer on Jackson Hole.

But elk aren’t moving anymore. Whether it’s wolves, highways or feedgrounds, long distance migrations of 60 miles or more are a thing of the past.

Doug Brimeyer, wildlife management coordinator with Wyoming Game and Fish Department, is skeptical about historic long-distance migrations. He prefers to rely on scientific data collected through collars and ear tags. Since the 1940s, Yellowstone elk migrating south stopped in Jackson Hole, according to Brimeyer. What is alarming to Brimeyer and his agency is that migration, in general, is no longer occurring. Wapiti move from nearby river bottoms and subdivisions to the refuge and back. They’re townies.

“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, if you tagged 10 elk on the refuge, four of them would go to the Teton Wilderness or southern Yellowstone, and one out of the 10 would go to Spring Gulch. Today we have the exact opposite. We’ve got one going to Yellowstone and four going to Spring Gulch,” Brimeyer said.

Disbursement dilemma

On one hand, managers of elk have a lot to pat themselves on the back for. With increasing numbers of predators nipping at their heels, decreasing habitat, and disease knocking on the door, the total population of the Jackson elk herd is right at objective: 11,000. The bad news is the animals aren’t where anyone wants them to be.

Overpopulation on the refuge is a result of elk all but abandoning other wintering options. Elk numbers in the Gros Ventre Wilderness are dismal — 1,162 were counted last year compared to an interagency goal of 3,500. Buffalo Valley and the Moran area, once teaming with elk and prized for its hunting harvest, is a virtual ghost town. Wildlife managers would like to see 2,500 elk in there. There’s less than a thousand.

It can’t all be blamed on the refuge. Where elk winter is subject to change, depending on the animal. Where they summer is sacred to elk, and they are fiercely loyal about it. And more and more elk are choosing to make shorter commutes between seasons, teaching their young to do likewise.

“It’s not animals switching summer ranges over time, it’s a learned behavior from momma cow,” Cole said. “Our research suggests that it’s based on calf recruitment into the population. Once a calf is born they have a lot of fidelity to their summer range; they don’t switch very often. And over time these shortdistance migrants survive a lot more, their recruitment is double that of long-distance migrants in Yellowstone.”

And, boy, how they survive. A cow-calf ratio is a measure of how many new animals are recruited into a herd per 100 cows. Calf ratios in the Gros Ventre dropped to alarmingly low levels a few years ago — less than 10 calves per 100 cows. The ratio in southern Yellowstone and the Teton Wilderness is about 20 — most wildlife managers would like to see that a bit higher, in the 30-35 range. But in the region known to Game and Fish as Hunt Area 78 (South of Phelps Lake, through the airport and on down Fish Creek and Spring Gulch) the calf ratio is an eye-popping 60.

The only tool at the disposal of Game and Fish to balance the distribution of animals they say is “out of whack” is hunting. Pressure in Buffalo Valley and the Gros Ventre has been scaled back dramatically since 2000 with little effect so far. Tags issued in Hunt Area 78 can’t keep up with growth there.

“The state’s doing the best they can getting as many hunters into 78 as they safely can. But it’s really, really tough,” Cole said. “Those long migrants are the ones that provide high-quality hunting opportunities. If they are in decline, that’s a big problem from a management perspective. If you like to hunt in the backcountry on horseback you don’t want a bunch of suburban elk hanging out around town. They come right to the refuge and are not huntable on the subdivisions and private land. People don’t have a lot of tolerance for hunting in there.”

Brimeyer says Game and Fish has seen the trend develop over the past 10-15 years. “We recognize animals were using that Snake River corridor, using the Snake River Ranch and moving across Highway 390 over toward Fish Creek,” he said. “We picked up a couple radio collars right by the gas station in Teton Village. Historically, we’ve never seen that — elk hanging out in there in any great numbers.”

Game and Fish spokesman Mark Gocke called the fertile river bottomland near town a “little elk factory.”

“It’s frustrating because you are managing for the same number of elk — 11,000 — but the proportion is way out of whack,” Gocke said. “Area 78 is the only place where we can have a shot at these elk that are cranking out 50 to 60 calves per 100 cows. But our options are getting limited. It’s pretty concerning.”

Not only is the eating good, but elk know they won’t get shot at much near town. “Elk learn really quickly how to avoid lead poisoning,” Cain admitted.

The elephant in the room, however, is the wolf.

Predation escalation

Since the reintroduction of the wolf to Wyoming, elk have responded predictably and accordingly. First, they vacated Yellowstone. Officials there point to the benefits to habitat once ungulate species were thinned out.

Game and Fish infrared aerial photos allow the department to count ‘suburban’ elk with more accuracy than ever before possible. (Photo: Wyoming Game and Fish)

Game and Fish infrared aerial photos allow the department to count ‘suburban’ elk with more accuracy than ever before possible. (Photo: Wyoming Game and Fish)

“In Yellowstone, the willows are coming back, and the aspen are coming back,” Dorsey said. “That’s an indicator you’ve got too many herbivores out there. We know those shrub communities are so important to a host of species from beavers to songbirds to moose.”

Elk disappeared from the Teton Wilderness next. As wolf populations propagated, elk fled. This spring, the Lava Mountain Pack numbered 24 lobos — the largest pack recorded in North America. They roam the Gros Ventre. The elk have left there, too.

So is it alfalfa pellets drawing elk close to town or wolves chasing them here?

“Without a doubt wolves have influenced elk distribution pretty much in most of the areas where pack structure gets fairly large. We’ve seen it in the Gros Ventre and in the Teton Wilderness,” Brimeyer said. “It’s going to be hard to influence those animals to stay up in some of that country with the density of predators there.”

Cole says the lack of elk dispersal is probably linked to predation, but points out the wolf is only partly to blame. “Bears probably more than wolves are playing a role,” he said. “There certainly are a lot of grizzly bears in the Teton Wilderness and Yellowstone, and they do depredate calves at a high rate. That’s probably what is driving it.”

Initial fears from the guide and outfitter community that wolves would decimate elk populations turned out to be a whole lot of Chicken Little. Targets for overall elk population, statewide, are 84,000. The latest count was 111,000. Harvest rates for Wyoming hunters averaged over the past three years hovers around 42 percent. In neighboring states it’s in the 20s.

Wildlife biologists agree, the wolf and the bear are doing just what they are supposed to do, culling herds by taking the weak and sick.

“From a Park Service standpoint, we saw the wolves as a big benefit to reestablishing natural patterns. Once again, you had a forest that required elk to be more vigilant,” Cain said. “Everything about the way an elk has adapted revolves around it having to avoid and withstand predation over tens of thousands of years. When predators are not on the landscape those forces go away. We view both increasing numbers of wolves and grizzlies as a good thing. It reinforces the natural processes that were here before humans intervened.”

Dorsey, too, believes predators are essential to an intact and healthy functioning ecosystem. As far as where exactly elk go to avoid snapping jaws, Dorsey thinks it’s a bit of micromanaging by wildlife officials.

“I’ve heard that rationale that elk find refuge from predation in more settled areas of the valley. I think we and other communities have to understand that when you have this amount of public land — millions of acres — and the dominate paradigm is to have freeranging wildlife, that what we are accustomed to seeing 10 or 15 years ago doesn’t necessarily mean those animals are going to be in the same places,” Dorsey said.

“These metapopulations — that model of managing elk herds or any ungulates in a fairy tight space — well, is that the right model to manage wildlife in sub herd units? You can’t hold it against wildlife and predators for mixing it up out there. That struggle is what we are working our way through right now, where the elk aren’t where we want them to be. But to say it’s out of whack? Out of whack according to who?”

Disease danger

For the past two seasons, head counts on the refuge have been disturbingly high. Some 8,296 elk enjoyed free lunch in 2014. Last year, 8,390 snacked on alfalfa pellets while tourists gawked in captivation from horse-drawn sleighs.

It’s been worse. In the mid-’90s, numbers were ridiculous, topping 10,000, twice.

“It’s too many,” Cole said. A robust new irrigating system now waters 3,600 acres, allowing the refuge to realize a 10 percent yield over baseline in any given year. But it’s not enough.

“When we have the amount of elk we’ve been having it doesn’t matter how much we’ve irrigated, really,” Cole said. “It’s still too many mouths on too little land.”

Wolves and grizzly take their share of elk. (Photo: Dan Hartmann, PLOS Biology)

Wolves and grizzly take their share of elk. (Photo: Dan Hartmann, PLOS Biology)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials in 2007 adopted a goal of 5,000 elk on the main refuge at the north end of the town of Jackson. In all, between the state and feds, there are about a dozen elk feedgrounds operating during winter months. The vast majority of wapiti prefer the 25,000-acre spread north of town, where they cram themselves into about a fifth of that space on the open flatlands December through March.

Throw in a thousand bison, a growing headache for refuge managers, and that density is the perfect incubator for disease. Growing infestations ranging from the more benign foot rot, to troublesome brucellosis, to potentially devastating chronic wasting disease (CWD), have officials worried that a recipe for disaster awaits.

“Bison and elk have had brucellosis for a long time. It’s not ecologically important for them. CWD is a completely different story for elk,” Cain said. “I’m one of the people who believes it’s not if, but when. I think it will get here eventually. And when it does, it’s really unknown about the extent to which the current feedground will exacerbate a CWD infection, but I think any disease ecologist would tell you the situation is not good.”

CWD is a fatal neurological disease of cervids. It has been detected in deer within 100 miles east of Jackson. The disease advances approximately 1.8 million acres per year. Dorsey says CWD made a 3 million acre jump this past year. From its epicenter in north-central Colorado, the endemic zone for the disease covers Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Utah and Kansas. “It’s perhaps the largest epidemic of prion disease in the world,” Dorsey said.

Too many elk are choosing to live in subdivisions. (Photo: Mark Gocke)

Too many elk are choosing to live in subdivisions. (Photo: Mark Gocke)

Some proponents of supplemental winter feeding claim CWD is being made the latest bogeyman by those desiring to phase out feeding. The disease, while fatal, is slow moving and has a low prevalence where it does show up. A recent study, headed by former Game and Fish veterinarian Terry Kreeger and published in the journal Ecosphere in July 2014, stated CWD would not wipe out entire herds should it get a foothold in crowded feedgrounds, according to modeling simulations.

Given wildlife managers’ inability to develop vaccines or effectively control the spread of milder contagions, CWD, a form of mad-cow disease, should be impetus enough to end feeding immediately, according to Dorsey.

“Game and Fish are very [agriculture] oriented by tradition, so that’s going to be a heavy lift,” Dorsey said. “They want that silver bullet. It’s not going to happen. They’ve been using a brucellosis vaccine for 30 years and they just abandoned it last year after they learned it didn’t work.”

Feeding fuss

Game and Fish advisory secretary John Baughman termed the supplemental feeding program in Jackson Hole as perhaps the most complicated wildlife management issue in North America. Multiple jurisdictions oversee animals that know no boundaries. And passion runs high in every camp.

As wildlife managers work on a new Bison and Elk Management Plan for 2016 — they are still running off the 2007 blueprint —– the biggest interagency friction seems to be between the feds and the state.

Artificial feeding of elk in Jackson Hole has come under fire in recent years. (Photo: Lori Iverson, USFWS)

Artificial feeding of elk in Jackson Hole has come under fire in recent years. (Photo: Lori Iverson, USFWS)

Grand Teton National Park officials would like to see lower elk numbers in order to maintain a proper ecosystem balance that would ensure a healthy habitat supporting all flora and fauna within its borders. A more manageable population might also allow the park to end the controversial elk reduction hunt program. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reps wouldn’t mind feeding less, either. They are congressionally mandated to provide sanctuary for more than just elk.

“There’s really no way we are going to be able to reduce our reliance on supplemental feeding until we get elk down to that 5,000 level or below. The only thing we can do is make the refuge a little bit less desirable. And make it less likely that animals that are on winter range will be able to find us,” Cole said. His agency is looking at scaling down artificial feeding, if not completely eliminating it, within a few years.

Cain said the phaseout should be done slowly and thoughtfully, but total elimination of supplemental feed must be the goal.

“It could require a reduction of the overall herd size to numbers lower than where some people want to see them,” Cain admitted. “But there is not a biologist I’ve ever talked to, no matter what agency they work for, that says artificial feeding is a good thing. It’s been invested heavily in this area. It’s a tradition. It’s within the culture of wildlife management now. The question is how do we move beyond that for the long-term interest of the wildlife?”

But leadership at Game and Fish become troubled when hunting revenues are threatened. The state targets a higher number of elk for Jackson. So far, the agencies have worked obligingly together toward a new plan.

“Our agency’s overall goal is 11,000 [elk]. It will be a challenge. We are going to have to move forward with the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] plan that we agree to, but understanding that it is the National Elk Refuge’s plan, and they have their own goals that they want to reach, too,” Brimeyer said. “We are going to help them as much as we can in the future. But obviously no one wants 5,000 elk standing on the highway by the museum.”

Cole responded: “That is the big tension between the refuge and the state right now. Because we want to support state herd objectives, too, but we haven’t really worked out the solution yet. That’s what we are trying to do in this new plan.”

Dorsey said it will be a case of tough love but feeding must end, the sooner the better.

“We could do with fewer elk in Wyoming. What is a target for the Jackson elk herd? Calculations run from 7,000 to 10,000. I would counsel to be on the lower end of that and see how it works for a while,” Dorsey said. “Is that enough elk for the tourism industry, the sleigh rides on the refuge, for the hunting industry? I suspect that it is. That’s not to get rid of three or four thousand elk in one fell swoop, whatsoever, but I think we should ratchet it back for a while. We can serve future generations by making some difficult decisions now.”

If feeding ended tomorrow, no, the National Elk Refuge land would not be sold to developers. Cole has heard that rumor more than once.

“To say that the refuge would go away if we didn’t feed anymore is totally wrong. I’ve heard that before,” Cole said. “It’s probably the most important point you could make in this story. The refuge will still be a place elk can ride out a winter, in lower numbers than what we’ve seen, without artificial feeding. Just because we end feeding doesn’t mean this land will become a golf course.” PJH


About Jake Nichols

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