“Imagine…no roads, no buildings, and no electricity – land as far as the eye can see – jagged mountains on the east and west horizons – and big game dotting the valley floor. The year is 1850, the air is crisp, and the snow blankets the valley. Elk surround you, their breath condensing in the air. Some are resting, some are chewing their cud, and others are browsing on nearby shrubs.”
-Adapted from “A Legacy of Conservation,” published by the National Elk Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
In a few short years, there will be a prominent human presence and the elk herd will see great change. The homestead act of 1862 brought permanent settlers and by the early 1900’s they finally discovered the valley and converted wildlife habitat to livestock range.
The once safe winter range became perilous. As the migration of humans moved west, estimated elk numbers of 10 million dropped to 50,000 by the early 1900s. One of the largest remaining herds wintered in Jackson Hole. With homesteaders tilling elk migration paths, the community of Jackson blocking 75% of elk winter range, and excessive hunting and poaching, the heard was dwindling and starving. Beginning with $45,000 in 1912, the National Elk Refuge was purchased to feed wintering elk. The Elk Refuge today, nearly 25,000 acres in size, has supported upwards of 18,000 wintering elk.
In Grand Teton National Park we have a rare opportunity to witness firsthand the spring migration of one of the last great herds of elk. Elk begin leaving their wintering grounds in April and May, following the receding snowline back into the cool, high country, where they spend the summer. These animals travel distances varying from a few miles up to 100 miles during migration from the Refuge to Grand Teton National Park, southern Yellowstone National Park, and national forest lands to the north and northeast of Jackson Hole.
Visitors to Jackson Lake Lodge can witness Mother Nature at her finest. As the herd travels North, from late May to mid-June, it passes through the Willow Flats area of Grand Teton National Park, directly behind the Lodge. Cows will bear their young in these secluded willow thickets protecting them from such predators as wolf and grizzly bear. Typically bearing only one calf, weighing 30 to 40 pounds, we frequently witness these newborn spotted calves staying close at hand to their Mothers at the herd continues it’s journey to cooler, higher, climates for the summer.
The breeding season (or “rut”) occurs in September and early October, while the elk are in the high country. At this time, the high-pitched “bugling” of the mature bulls can be heard as they gather harems of cows and challenge rival bulls. During the rut, bulls vigorously defend their harems of half a dozen to 15 or more cows.
In late fall, snow begins to fall in the high country, and the elk herds migrate back to their lower elevation winter range marking the end of the cycle, only to begin anew next spring.
Post from Don’s Corner ~ Interpretive Specialist