National Elk Refuge

Bull Elk herd, National Elk Refulge, Jackson Hole Wyoming
Bull Elk herd, National Elk Refulge, Jackson Hole Wyoming

When the sun peaks over the Gros Ventre Mountains east of Jackson Hole, and its light creeps slowly across valley, light creeps over bundles of fur and antlers starting to stir from a cold winter night. As the sun reaches the base of the Grand Teton, orange and yellow light bathes the landscape and 6,000 wintering elk. By ten o'clock, adventurous visitors braving the winter cold venture out on the refuge in horse drawn sleighs to get an up close view of these majestic animals.

In the pre Columbian Era elk ranged from the eastern states through central and western North America. They grazed the open prairies, mountain valleys, and foothills. As settlers pushed slowly westward, the distribution of the elk was rapidly reduced to the western mountains. By 1900, elk had disappeared from more than 90 percent of their original range.

When settlers arrived in Jackson Hole and homesteaded the valley in the 1880s, there may have been as many as 25,000 that wintered here. Establishment of farms and ranches displaced the elk from the traditional wintering areas and livestock competed for winter food, and hungry elk raided haystacks. The ranchers had to kill the elk if they wanted to stay in business.

In the early 1900s, severe winters with deep, crusted snow also took a serious toll on the wintering elk. In 1909 the ranchers and town folk of Jackson Hole appealed government to fund some land and a feeding program too save the diminishing elk herd. The refuge was created in 1912 as a result of public interest in the survival of the Jackson elk herd on about 1200 acres. The government has added to it over the years and today the Refuge consists 24,700 acres and is some of the last remaining elk winter range for the Jackson Hole Elk Herd. Prior to1916 Refuge was dotted with over 44 homesteads.

The refuge continues to preserve much of the remaining elk winter range in the valley, approximately one-quarter of the original Jackson Hole winter range. Elk stay on the refuge for approximately six months each winter.

National Elk Refge Sleigh Ride
National Elk Refge Sleigh Ride

The 5,000-8,000 wintering elk aren’t the only beneficiaries of the refuge. The refuge provides habitat and food for many animals including bison if which there are about 1000. There is a pack of wolves and about 60 coyotes roam in winter. Around 50 bighorn sheep winter on Miller Butte and moose wander around regularly. badgers, and uinta ground squirrels are can also be seen. Other common wildlife species include muskrat, beaver, porcupine, long-tailed weasel, and voles or meadow mice.

Humans have a time and a place on the refuge also. Flat Creek that flows through the center of it is a world famous trophy trout fishery. It is managed as a trophy fishery and therefore has a short season that is only open from August first till September 30. There is also a limited hunting season, as the elk numbers still have to be managed.

Trumpeter swans coming in for a landing on Flat Creek on the National Elk Refuge
Trumpeter swans coming in for a landing on Flat Creek on the National Elk Refuge

Winter may be the coolest time to visit the refuge because that is when you can take a sleigh ride through the center of the herd. The elk having become accustomed to dozens of sleighs driving through the herd everyday are quite tolerant of them and they approach within 20 to 30 feet of them with dozens to hundreds of elk on either side of the sled. Often bald eagles are seen along the way and coyotes are a regular sighting and wolves are possible but rare. At about $18 dollars a head the sleigh ride on the refuge is the best deal in town because just about every other activity costs about $100.00 or more.

The elk disappear in late spring but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see, marsh wrens, yellow-headed blackbirds, and common yellowthroats, while sandhill cranes and long-billed curlews are found in open marshes and meadows.Canada geese are plentiful, trumpeter swans nest here, sandhill cranes and a myriad of songbirds breed on the refuge wetlands throughout the summer. By late summer young geese, cygnets and other birds can be seen along Flat Creek and the viewing area just north of Jackson is a magnet for bird watchers and photographers.

The goal of the National Elk Refuge is to protect and promote natural habitat for wildlife and future generations or people.

To learn more about Greater Yellowstone Elk visit the Greater Yellowstone Resource Gudes Elk Page

Bighorn Rams buttin heads on Miller Butte on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole Wyoming
Bighorn Rams buttin heads on Miller Butte on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole Wyoming
Rutting Bighorn Rams on the fight on the National Elk Refulge fisherman testing his skill on the over educated trophy trout of Flat Creek on the National Elk Refulge in Jackson Hole Wyoming
Rutting Bighorn Rams on the fight on the National Elk Refulge
Fisherman testing his skill on the over educated trophy trout of Flat Creek on the National Elk Refulge in Jackson Hole Wyoming

The National Elk Refuge's best kept secret

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