Elk Winter Migration in the Tetons

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With temperatures already below freezing in Grand Teton National Park, wildlife is on the move to locations where they can survive the cold winter. For example, elk herds are migrating to areas where they have the best opportunity to find food so as to not need to rely on the stored-up fats put on from grazing throughout the summer and fall. The ungulates–split-hoofed 4-legged animals such as deer, bison, elk, and bighorn sheep–in winter paw below the snow and nibble on dry grasses, but these grasses are really just empty calories. What is sustaining their bodies is the stored-up body fat.

Historically in Jackson Hole, elk and bison will migrate to the valley floor where snow covers summer pastures. In 1912 the National Elk Refuge, some 25,000 acres, was created to help feed these wild animals. For the last several years, Wyoming Wildlife Fish and Game agency has allowed seasonal winter hunts to reduce the herd numbers.

For example, most winters we have about 11,000 elk on the refuge, literally on the doorstep of Jackson–the north boundary of town. Wildlife management would like to see 7,000 or less. Hunting will not only reduce the herd size but dissuade some animals to find another location to winter. And it seems to be working– migration patterns of elk and buffalo have notably changed. Whereby in November, we typically see several hundred to thousands of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park elk arriving to the National Elk Refuge for winter food, this year the elk have simply passed through and have not stayed in the valley due to hunting pressure. These elk are choosing to stay in the surrounding Bridger Teton National Forest.
Matt Fagan, Buffalo Roam Tours Guide

For more on the National Elk Refuge, visit
www.fws.gov/nationalelkrefuge