Mad About Elk
The National Elk Refuge celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. But its future is far from certain.
Steve Kallin entertains these questions as he enters a treeless gulf of open space. Leaving the frenetic trappings of Jackson behind, he crosses a hard-edged line that demarks the town’s northern boundary and yields to the National Elk Refuge.
I am riding along in the front seat of a government pickup truck. Kallin has spent thirty-four years with the Fish and Wildlife Service and is now the federal refuge’s top manager. Deeper, we venture into a breezy maw of undeveloped terrain that arguably is as important to Jackson’s geographical identity as the town’s proximity to the Tetons. Soon, we reach a destination that seldom is referenced anymore by its frontier-era moniker. “There’s a reason why the early settlers of Jackson Hole called this spot ‘Poverty Flats,’ ” Kallin, a soft-spoken man, says. “The rocky soil’s not very good for growing crops.”
Indeed, it’s just past noon, and the ankle-high grass is brittle and parched from the hot August sun. Not another living creature is in sight, but a few months will bring a swarm of hoof traffic. The land might not be good for growing crops, but over the last one hundred years, this sweep of terra firma and the 25,000 surrounding acres have proven to be exceedingly productive for saving—and growing—something remarkable: the most famous wild elk herd in the world. Upwards of 7,500 elk congregate here each winter (about 800 bison wander down, too).
As placid as it looks under the snowy mantle it wears between November and April, the National Elk Refuge was born out of a clash between humans and nature. As late as 130 years ago, wapiti—a Shawnee word for elk that means “white rump”—funneled in the tens of thousands through the bottoms of Jackson Hole in autumn and back again in late spring, like waterfowl passing through skies. They’d feast upon high-country grass all summer long and then move to lower elevations—the valley floor and further south to the flanks of the Wind River Mountains—to survive winters. This migration, up to hundreds of miles long in each direction, happened for millennia … until non-Indian settlers arrived.
Poachers and market hunters slaughtered elk for their hides, meat, and “ivory” tusks. More than poachers and hunters, though, it was homesteaders erecting buildings and fences across the valley that interrupted the elk’s migratory path. It is estimated that elk in North America once numbered 10 million, inhabiting most areas of the country. By the early 1900s, numbers had dropped to 50,000, plummeting just as bison numbers did. The Jackson Hole herd was one of the largest remnant strongholds, but it, too, became threatened.
Historically, the southern end of our valley, starting at the northern boundary of today’s Elk Refuge all the way down to South Park and Hoback, was prime winter range for upwards of 25,000 elk. The town of Jackson blocked—and still blocks—75 percent of the original “elk highway.” Jackson was built smack-dab in the middle of the historic wapiti winter habitat passageway, essentially creating a plug in the animals’ migration corridor. Elk that did manage to make it past town often found usurping cattle grazing on the few snow-free slopes. Ranchers had little tolerance for elk eating the grass bound for the bellies of beef cows. Suddenly, with only 25 percent of their former natural forage areas available, elk began to starve—and, in harsh winters, die in mass numbers.
Locals were alarmed. In 1909, knowing they needed to act quickly, Jackson Hole citizens led a homegrown movement to intervene. It won support in Cheyenne and Washington, D.C. “Local folks saw the fate of elk going rapidly the same way as bison,” says Earle Layser, author of a new book, The Jackson Hole Settlement Chronicles. It wasn’t until 1912 that the National Elk Refuge was established, though. Not the country’s first wildlife refuge—that honor goes to Pelican Island off the coast of Florida, which President Teddy Roosevelt established by executive order in 1903—it was the first wildlife sanctuary specifically for a terrestrial mammal referred to as a “refuge.” The government purchased private ranchland from willing sellers. And it kept purchasing, albeit slowly at first. Prior to 1916, the present-day National Elk Refuge was dotted with forty-four homesteads, and the preserve was only a modest 2,760 acres in size, just one-tenth as large as today.
Over generations, what happens here has been nothing short of a phenomenon. Every November, thousands of wapiti appear en masse. A true spectacle of nature, the return of elk to Jackson Hole is as eagerly anticipated as the arrival of swallows at San Juan Capistrano, the movement of wildebeest over the Serengeti Plains, and catching glimpses of calving whales in the Sea of Cortez. “It’s one of the things that sets this valley apart from every other in the West,” Kallin says. “There’s a chatter around town when elk start to show up.”
The elk rescue that occurred here exactly a century ago is, in its own way, unparalleled in American conservation history. Tom Toman, former wildlife manager with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, used to be stationed in Jackson. He now works for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, an organization unmatched in its mission of restoring elk to its former range in North America. Toman credits the National Elk Refuge with serving as an important reservoir of wapiti that has allowed that to flourish.
But appearances can be somewhat deceiving. Dr. Bruce Smith, a hunter, Vietnam veteran, and retired federal biologist who spent twenty-two years studying elk on the refuge, says the sea of animals visible from U.S. Highway 189 in winter is magnificent, but it’s also “an illusion” and “a disaster waiting to happen.” How could that be?
The genesis for Smith’s worry started like this: On August 10, 1912, the federal government bought $45,000 of hay for elk that, in several months, would be descending onto Jackson Hole’s new refuge. Well-intentioned, those running the refuge decided they weren’t just going to provide wapiti with habitat, but also ensure the animals wouldn’t become emaciated over the long winter. Supplemental nourishment dramatically reduced the number of elk that died … but it also kept the size of the herd at an artificially high level. Yes, up to 25,000 elk may have once roamed the valley floor historically. But given the smaller space now set aside for them, the herd’s numbers were beyond what the land would otherwise support, putting them on a collision course with another threat.
As biologist Smith notes, feeding animals in close quarters fosters conditions ripe for disease transmission. Science backs this up; studies have shown that conditions at “feedlots” increase disease rates up to ten times those found in the wild because diseases are passed rapidly among animals in close contact. The bovine disease brucellosis, which causes pregnant cows to abort their young, is one such blight.
Brucellosis isn’t the only zoonotic malady elk living in close proximity are vulnerable to catching. There’s also scabies and hoof rot—both already found on the refuge—and, most worrisome, chronic wasting disease (CWD), a cousin to the notorious mad cow disease that causes dementia-like symptoms in victims.
Discovered in a Colorado research facility in the 1960s, CWD has a fatality rate of 100 percent, and there are fears—so far unproven—that people could possibly become ill by eating infected game meat. Biologists have killed hundreds of infected wild deer across the country—and thousands of others that are not infected—to keep the disease from spreading.
Chronic wasting disease hasn’t yet been detected on the National Elk Refuge, but it has been found in herds only seventy miles outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In a 2008 New York Times article about the disease, experts warned that if prions, the agents that cause it, were to reach the refuge, they could live in the soil for decades, likely forcing refuge managers to contemplate radical options for keeping wildlife and humans away from the contamination.
The easiest antidote to reduce the threat is to halt the feeding, Smith asserts in his acclaimed 2011 book, Where Elk Roam: Conservation and Biopolitics of Our National Elk Herd, which was written after his retirement from Fish and Wildlife.
Elsewhere in North America, including in neighboring Idaho and Montana, state and federal game agencies have outlawed game farms and artificial feeding because of their known link to causing disease outbreaks. Wyoming, which has twenty-two state-run feedgrounds in addition to the National Elk Refuge, has refused to follow suit for two primary reasons: First, those feedgrounds help keep the elk population artificially high, which benefits purveyors of commercial elk hunts; and secondly, those feeding stations draw elk away from private pastures where cattle graze, thus not exposing beef cows to brucellosis. The irony is that the refuge and the twenty-two state feedgrounds have caused brucellosis infection rates in elk to remain high.
Throughout most of its history, the refuge did not have clear marching orders other than to keep elk at the trough. Clarification only arrived when Congress passed the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997. This act established “promotion of naturally functioning ecosystems and protection of imperiled species among the paramount priorities for all refuges across the country.”
With the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, conservationists that had long been pressing for the National Elk Refuge to stop feeding finally had a legal hook. In 2008, a quartet of environmental organizations—including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance—challenged the legality of the refuge’s feeding program in federal district court. They prevailed, with a judge ruling that by feeding elk, the refuge was operating in violation of its own governing statute. But the court then refused to impose a timeline for compelling the refuge to eliminate feeding. Plaintiffs filed an appeal, which was rejected. However, the appellate court noted: “The whole point of a National Elk Refuge is to provide a sanctuary in which populations of healthy, reproducing elk can be sustained,” the judges wrote in their decision. “The refuge can hardly provide such a sanctuary if, every winter, elk and bison are drawn by the siren song of human-provided food to what becomes, through the act of gathering, a miasmic zone of life-threatening diseases.”
Rather than eliminating feeding or reducing the size of the herd, Wyoming tried to reduce the incidence of brucellosis by inoculating elk and bison with a brucellosis vaccine through “biobullets.” The technique has proven ineffective in cutting the number of animals infected with the disease. Wyoming has also experimented on a state-operated elk feedground, similar to the Elk Refuge, with a test-and-slaughter program to remove brucellosis-infected elk altogether. But, as Smith points out, that strategy translated to an expense of about $13,000 for each elk tested and removed. It was deemed neither cost-effective nor practical to repeat on the Elk Refuge.
Kallin says the feeding program at the refuge has actually changed elk behavior, teaching generations of wapiti they can expect to find forage. Ending the dependency, engrained over a century now, won’t be fixed in a short time. “There is no one magic bullet for getting us out of this dilemma,” he says. The refuge is implementing a plan to gradually unhook elk from a diet of pellets to reduce elk numbers. The strategy includes irrigating the refuge’s grasslands in the summer to make more natural sustenance available and to more broadly disperse pellets to discourage elk from bunching up. A new management plan calls for wintertime refuge populations of 5,000 elk and 500 bison.
Not everyone shares the perspective that feeding elk is a bad idea, though. To outfitters, who guide hunters in search of trophy bull elk, the elk cluster represents a cornerstone to a way of life and money in the bank. Commercial elk hunting is big business in Wyoming. In the years after this new millennium began, the U.S. Geological Survey completed a study showing that more than 8,000 elk hunters come to Jackson Hole annually and spend millions of dollars. It’s not just hunters, either.
Last winter, 20,400 people paid eighteen dollars to take a scenic sleigh ride out into the herd.
In filmmaker Danny Schmidt’s recent documentary, Feeding the Problem, Jackson Hole native and hunting guide Harold Turner of the Triangle X Ranch, who’s been guiding for sixty years, observes: “The state of Wyoming did a survey a couple of years ago asking people what they knew about Jackson Hole. No. 1 was Yellowstone. No. 2 was our elk herds.” Turner adds, “We are famous worldwide because we have a lot of elk. And we have a lot of elk because of the feeding grounds. If the elk feeding grounds were shut down, we will not only lose our economic base, but we will lose our heritage.”
There’s debate over the seriousness of the threat of CWD, too. Wyoming wildlife veterinarian Terry Kreeger claims the disease’s arrival on the refuge is not a certainty, and he believes both the state and federal government have established a gauntlet of testing to isolate animals suspected to be sick. He asserts that dire predictions about the impact of CWD are overblown.
In response, Smith says the state is focusing on detection of CWD rather than prevention, and if they wait until they have a confirmed case in hand, it means that countless other animals would likely already be exposed. The big looming question: then what?
If some members of the public find the cessation of artificial feeding to be unacceptable for economic reasons, he asks, how will they react to the prospect of depopulating—essentially annihilating the herd—to prevent CWD from spreading to the 250,000 elk and deer in the rest of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem? “How will that affect tourism?” Smith asks incredulously. “How might it affect the outfitting business?”
How could two perspectives of the same scene—both based upon a professed love for wildlife—lead to such differing conclusions?
The refuge is using different techniques and trying to slowly wean elk off reliance on artificial feed, but critics note it needs to happen in sync with state-run feedgrounds. Smith claims Wyoming is in denial. Kallin, for his part, is trying to chart a middle course through the controversy.
After spending more than three decades rising through U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s management ranks, he understands he is stewarding the life-blood of a crown jewel in the national wildlife refuge system. “I’d say that after a century, the wisdom of those who acted to create the refuge has been reaffirmed many times over,” Kallin says. “And now it’s our turn. For the next one hundred years, the question that needs to be asked is: ‘As a society, how do we want to manage wildlife?’ It’s gonna require a willingness to make tough decisions.” Right now, he notes, “it’s unclear how those marking the refuge’s bicentennial in 2112 will judge our ability to choose.”