Mad About Elk
The National Elk Refuge celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. But its future is far from certain.
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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.