Each autumn as the aspen grove erupt into a spectacle of color and the first snows dust the mountains, the region’s elk populations begin their seasonal migrations from the alpine high country to lower elevations. It is a natural ritual forged out of survival. After months spent grazing on rich summer foliage, elk must move to milder winter habitats less susceptible to the elements and where winter feed and water will be more accessible, or, risk the poor outlook of surviving the long winter and heavy snows in the mountains.

This passage, nature’s final curtain call before the onset of winter, brings to life the area’s wildernesses. The first migrations coincide with the peak rut, during which bull elk begin to separate and gather cows. Bulls will dutifully defend their harems, seldom sleeping or eating for weeks. A bull may lose as much as 200 pounds, or 20 percent of its weight, fending off challengers. These herds will then begin their long and generally arduous journeys to winter habitat.

The Pioneer Footprint

Elk migrations across the Greater Yellowstone region were first observed by fur trappers, who arrived in the Jackson Hole valley in the 1820s – although Native American tribes had discovered the region’s rich ecological diversity long before. Blackfoot and Shoshone Indians would make camp in the area following the spring thaw, but, like the elk they hunted, the harsh winters limited their stays to the warm summer months. After which, the tribes would migrate to milder climates.

Drawn by the bounty of wildlife, the first trappers established Jackson Hole as a crossroads of at least six major trade routes. These early explorers hosted annual rendezvouses, and word soon began to spread about the area’s rugged beauty and natural fertility, proliferated in East Coast newspapers. In the mid-1880s, the first permanent settlers began to arrive, and within a decade the valley was dotted with the first cabins and settlements, several of which survive today.

Early pioneers braved long winters and short growing seasons to begin the area’s first successful cattle operations. It was a tough existence, but the burgeoning beef trade across the West made for potentially lucrative earnings to those who could bear the isolation and frigid temperatures. The rocky soil proved amenable to alfalfa hay and oat crops, which sustained livestock though the winter.

Through the turn of the 20th century, as railroads facilitated greater commercial travel, Jackson Hole’s notoriety continued to grow. Many visitors were attracted by the valley’s renown hunting and fishing, which created boon for local outfitters and later dude ranches. Like the first ranchers, these operations relied on feed crops to support livestock, which were critical to their businesses.

The appearance of ranches and outfitting operations quickly began to disrupt elk migrations. Fences and later roads created barriers that interrupted routes, while haystacks and winter feed grounds provided convenient, albeit unintentional, sustenance that made further progress unnecessary. At the same time, increased hunting pushed many herds back into the mountains in the fall, and the onset of winter then prevented movement south. Herds that were once believed to migrate as far south as the Green River Basin began to stop in the Jackson Hole valley.

A National Refuge

Increasingly hemmed into the valley for the duration of winter, the greater Yellowstone elk population began to suffer. Thousands of eld succumbed to the elements following several specially harsh back-to-back winters, which took a noticeable toll on numbers. Sympathetic to the animals’ plight - or, in other cases, simply recognizing the potentially adverse impact on outfitters - mainly settlers began voluntarily feeding the elk. 

It was no small inconvenience for ranchers to support elk alongside their own livestock. Short summers made raising sufficient hay for cattle and horses challenging enough. An added burden of often hundreds of elk could quickly deplete their stores, which posed a danger to both the wildlife and livestock. During severe winters, there simply wasn’t enough feed to go around. 

In 1909, freezing rains and heavy snows drove the area’s elk out of the high country in record numbers. They invaded ranches and roamed the streets of the Town of Jackson, which was not yet incorporated. The subsequent two winters were equally grueling. By 1911, fewer than 10,000 elk were left in Jackson Hole - about a fifth of the 50,000 that were recorded in 1888. One resident noted that it was possible to walk two miles stepping on elk carcasses without setting foot on the ground. 


In that first year, 1909, local settlers raised $600 - about $15,000 today - to purchase hay to feed the elk. It was the first collective effort to do so. Five districts were established, and a rancher was put in charge of each to manage the feeding. In 1910, the State of Wyoming allocated $5,000 to purchase hay for the elk, but even that proved insufficient. 

About the same time, local hunting guide S.N. Leek - who had been gifted a plate-glass camera by client George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak - began photographing the starving elk. The images were published alongside articles he submitted to newspapers and magazines. Leek, who is often credited as the “Father of the Elk,” embarked on national lecture series, which began to raise awareness of the issue. 

In February 1911, the Wyoming Legislature passed a motion requesting the U.S. Congress to support efforts to preserve the local elk population. Weeks later, Congress appropriated $20,000 “to be made available immediately for feeding and protecting the elk in Jackson Hole.”

The following year, Congress earmarked $45,000 and decreed the establishment of a National Elk Refuge, which incorporated 1,000 acres of public land and 1,760 acres of purchased land just north of the Town of Jackson. In total, 34 homesteads were acquired in the deal, including that of Robert Miller, one of the first settlers in the valley. The Miller House still sits on the southeast end of the Refuge. Collectively, the Refuge totaled about 1,250 acres in 1912.

In 1925 the Issac Walton League of America brought 1,760 acres of private land in the valley, which Congress accepted to be included into the National Elk Refuge in 1927. Eight years later, Congress allocated $6 million to acquire wildlife land throughout the United States. A portion of the funds were dedicated to acquire 14,000 more acres around the Refuge. Negotiations with John D. Rockefeller’s Snake River Land Company produced another 3,000 acres, and executive orders by President Roosevelt in 1936 and 1937 added nearly 3,800 more - with brought the National Elk Refuge to its current size of approximately 25,000 acres. 

USA, Wyoming, National Elk Refuge. Tourists on sleigh ride and resting elk. Credit as: Cathy & Gordon Illg / Jaynes Gallery / DanitaDelimont.com

The Feeding Dilemma

Today, the National Elk Refuge is managed by the federal U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Each year, the program supports between 7,000 and 10,000 elk, although populations have grown even larger during harsh winters. About 25,000 people tour the Refuge each year. 

While largely applauded for its conservation mission, the National Elk Refuge has become the focus of a national debate over the science and economics of protecting wildlife. Concentrated elk populations are susceptible to the spread of disease, which, passed from animal to animal, could breakout across herds when grouped closely together, or C.W.D., have put an emphasis on the issue. C.W.D. is an infections neural disorder that spreads by mutated proteins. The disease was first discovered in Colorado in 1960, and it later appeared in wildlife along the southeast corner of Wyoming. In 2008, an infected moose was discovered about 45 miles from the National Elk Refuge, and reports of the disease have increase in recent years. In 2019, a mule deer that was shot in the Willow Creek drainage south of Hoback Junction was confirmed positive for C.W.D.

The emergence has sparked concerns that the disease, or others like it, could decimate the region’s elk population if it were to infiltrate the Refuge. A seven percent infection rate, which has not been reached, could put elk populations on an escalating downward trajectory, absent hunting or other interventions, according to a recent analysis. Other worry that auxiliary effects, like transmission to other species and fewer hunters, could make managing numbers difficult. 

In the spring of 2019, a coalition of environmental advocates filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service that seeks to require the agency to issue a plan to phase out feeding on the National Elk Refuge. In 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Service committed to creating the plan, but it has been delayed by disagreements among state and federal officials. 

Other advocates worry that feeding programs put an untenable burden on local ecosystems. “Human intervention has stuffed too many hungry mouths on too little habitat, compromising the refuge’s conservation mandate,” Bruce Smith, a former staff biologist at the National Elk Refuge, wrote in 2019. As a result, Smith notes, only five percent of the tall willow that once grew on the sanctuary remain. 

As the National Elk Refuge has become the de facto destination for much of the region’s elk, other still worry that predatory species could be affected. Wolves hunt elk, and bears often scavenge on dead elk after coming out of hibernation. Those populations would be affected by a sharp decline in numbers - whether that decline is caused by disease or a smaller survival rate through winters. 

The issue poses the difficult question of how to scale back or discontinue feeding programs on which elk herds have become dependent. Deaths are likely to increase, particularly during severe winters, absent human intervention, and because development has impeded migration routes, it’s unlikely the animals will be able to readily adapt behaviors to reach sustainable winter habitat. 

Nationally and locally, the debate continues to grow, heightened by the looming threat of diseases like C.W.D. A detailed plan to scale back feeding on the Refuge was released by the Fish and Wildlife Service for public comment in fall 2019. Meanwhile, the National Elk Refuge’s feeding program continues. 

To learn more about the National Elk Refuge, or what it’s like to live in Jackson Hole, please reach out to our dedicated team of agents. 

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