Although I’ve been through Jackson Hole multiple times, I’ve never visited the National Elk Refuge just north of town. The National Elk Refuge is one of 553 refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There is good evidence that elk once ranged all across North America, inhabiting forests, river valleys, the prairies and mountains. Today, people are more familiar with elk as a western species migrating seasonally from high elevation summer ranges to winter ranges at lower elevations.
People and elk like some of the same things: fertile valleys, winter protection, and running water. Jackson Hole is a major migratory pathway historically used by elk and other species.
As this map shows, the historic elk winter range around the east side of the Tetons corresponds with much of the private lands of Jackson Hole. As Jackson Hole became settled in the late 1800’s conflict arose between humans and elk.
By the early 1900’s the people of Jackson Hole, local and federal wildlife management divisions, and the Wyoming State Legislature appealed to congress to create a plan to protect the Jackson Hole elk herd. The National Elk Refuge was created in 1912. Land within the winter range was set aside and a feeding program began to minimize the conflict and provide adequate food for the resident herd.
Today, the refuge consists of almost 25,000 acres and is home to around 5,000 elk for about six months of the year. The Jackson Hole Cooperative Elk Studies Group, includes the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, and cooperatively engages in management studies and planning.
For more on the history of the National Elk Refuge see Elk Refuge: Legacy of Conservation.
Just as the Commission on the Conservation of the Elk of Jackson Hole reported in the late 1920’s the “Jackson Hole Elk Herd is a national resource combining economic, aesthetic, and recreation values in which the state of Wyoming, the federal government, private citizens, civic organizations are actively participating,” but managing this herd is not without its challenges.
Any time animals are kept in close quarters the incidence and transmission of disease increases, and the elk on feed grounds are no exception. Two major diseases are of concern on the National Elk Refuge: Brucellosis and Chronic Wasting Disease.
Brucellosis causes cattle, elk and bison to abort. Because of its potential to be transmitted to humans, Brucellosis is one of the most regulated diseases of cattle in the United States. Each state is given a Brucellosis free rating by APHIS. If a state looses it’s ‘A’ rating, the ability of cattle ranchers to sell and distribute their product is greatly reduced.
Concern of transmission of Brucellosis from elk to cattle continues, so the elk on the refuge and many other Wyoming feed grounds are vaccinated against Brucellosis. The vaccine, however, is not completely effective and some reports say it is less than 50% effective in reducing Brucellosis in the elk population.
Chronic Wasting Disease is not well understood. What we do know is that it is fatal, and symptoms often do not show up until the animal is very sick. Species affected include white-tailed and mule deer, elk and moose. So far it has not been confirmed in the Jackson Hole elk herd, but data suggests it can spread quite rapidly in confined or concentrated herds such as at the feed grounds.