December 01, 2010

Jackson Hole Wyoming's National Elk Refuge

When the sun peaks over the Gros Ventre Mountains east of Jackson Hole, and its light creeps slowly across valley, light creeps over bundles of fur and antlers starting to stir from a cold winter night. As the sun reaches the base of the Grand Teton, orange and yellow light bathes the landscape and 6,000 wintering elk. By ten o'clock, adventurous visitors braving the winter cold venture out on the refuge in horse drawn sleighs to get an up close view of these majestic animals.

In the pre Columbian area elk ranged from the eastern states through central and western North America. They grazed the open prairies, mountain valleys, and foothills. As settlers pushed slowly westward, the distribution of the elk was rapidly reduced to the western mountains. By 1900, elk had disappeared from more than 90 percent of their original range.

When settlers arrived in Jackson Hole and homesteaded the valley in the 1880s, there may have been as many as 25,000 that wintered here. Establishment of farms and ranches displaced the elk from the traditional wintering areas and livestock competed for winter food, and hungry elk raided haystacks. The ranchers had to kill the elk if they wanted to stay in business.

In the early 1900s, severe winters with deep, crusted snow also took a serious toll on the wintering elk. In 1909 the ranchers and town folk of Jackson Hole appealed government to fund some land and a feeding program too save the diminishing elk herd. The refuge was created in 1912 as a result of public interest in the survival of the Jackson elk herd on about 1200 acres. The government has added to it over the years and today the Refuge consists 24,700 acres and is some of the last remaining elk winter range for the Jackson Hole Elk Herd. Prior to1916 Refuge was dotted with over 44 homesteads.

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