Refuge’s scattered elk doing well

A bull elk grazes in the National Elk Refuge on March 23, 2017. Jeff Moberg photo
A bull elk grazes in the National Elk Refuge on March 23, 2017. Jeff Moberg photo

By Mike Koshmrl | Jackson Hole Daily | Via Wyoming News Exchange |

JACKSON — The National Elk Refuge’s namesake animals are more widely distributed than usual and are living off natural grasses this winter, but are also surviving better than in a typical year of eating provided alfalfa.

Almost all of the 50 elk found dead on the refuge to date have been bulls infected with scabies, a condition that causes hair loss and, in turn, leaves animals vulnerable to hypothermia and its associated ills.

Not a single calf to date is confirmed to have perished, and the overall mortality numbers are the lowest refuge biologist Eric Cole has observed in his 20-year tenure.

For perspective, a year ago, during the harshest winter in decades, 310 total elk died, including 210 calves.

“This is what you would expect in a very mild winter,” Cole said. “This sort of winter has been about as good as it gets for wintering ungulates. Temperatures have been well above average, and they have unlimited access to available forage.”

The 8 or so inches of snow that blanket the refuge’s south end are about average for early March. But usually the snow would be set up like concrete and impenetrable to elk hooves trying to reach the grass, Cole said. Instead, it’s powder all the way to the ground.

The mild weather, relatively open slopes and distributed elk have allowed managers to forgo feeding, and it’s shaping up to be the 10th year in the refuge’s 106-year history in which wapiti did not receive assistance to endure winter at 6,300 feet.

Feeding typically starts in late January and has never begun in March.

“Really, right now it’s a race against time,” Cole said. “We’re getting to the time of year where significant melting looks likely.”

High temperatures are forecast to reach the 40s for much of the coming week.

Only a massive snowstorm, an exodus of elk onto ranchland or a bison assault on the refuge’s southern boundary fence could prompt supplemental feeding at this point, he said.

If feeding does occur at this late date, it may do more harm than good.

“It’s entirely possible that initiating feeding now would result in higher elk mortality than if we did not feed,” Cole said.

The reason, he said, is because a subset of the elk may not adapt well to the more nutritious alfalfa, which may cause them to develop ruminitis and die, and the likelihood of elk developing bacterial “foot rot” would also increase.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is still finalizing its “classification” of the Jackson Elk Herd, a process that determines the overall population size and provides the number of bulls, cows and calves. The precise count has been complicated this year by a wad of 4,000 elk that were impossible to classify using customary methods, because the herd wasn’t feeding and in an easily sortable line formation.

But Cole is confident that the number of elk on the southern portions of the refuge has been well below average. It’s in the ballpark of 4,400, he said, which is less than the 5,000-elk goal and around half the tally from recent winters.

“It’s difficult to make those comparisons, because the high numbers that we’ve witnessed have been associated with feeding,” Cole said. “This is about what we would expect, and it’s desirable. Animals are making use of natural forage where it’s available, which is consistent with the goals of the refuge.”