Forage at National Elk Refuge hits record low

Ithaca 37

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Mar 4, 2001
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Forage at National Elk Refuge hits record low

JACKSON, Wyo. — Four thousand elk and 450 bison have migrated to the National Elk Refuge, but forage there is at a record low, wildlife officials said.
Habitat biologist Eric Cole said less than half the forage usually produced grew last summer on 25,000 acres in the area.

Cole and an assistant estimated the forage at 7,140 tons, most of it grass. That is down from an average of more than 17,000 tons. Four consecutive drought years, combined with a grasshopper infestation, were blamed.

Supplemental feeding of elk and bison will likely begin earlier than usual, Cole said. A refuge biologist and one from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will decide when to start the supplemental program. Usually, it starts in mid- to late-January.

Think about what happens on every other winter range when the elk and deer arrive there soon! What do you think should be done?
The elk didn't arrive any sooner than they have any other year on the refuge. Approximately 10,000 acres of grass was destroyed by the grasshoppers this year on the refuge. That along with several years of drought has caused a big problem. Don't know about the other winter ranges or feed grounds.
National Elk Refuge Manager Barry Reiswig says it could be a hungry year for elk and bison migrating to the Refuge this fall. Each year, biologists monitor the amount of forage produced on the refuge, and a combination of factors has resulted in an especially low production of forage this year. In fact, vegetation on the refuge is at its lowest level on record. In an average year, about 17 thousand four hundred tons of forage is produced on the Refuge. This year, however the 25 thousand acre refuge has produced only about 7 thousand tons. Reiswig said the poor production is due to 4 years of drought and a massive grasshopper infestation. Elk on the refuge usually feed on standing forage for 3 to 5 months without supplemental feeding. The Refuge usually begins feeding elk by late January. Supplemental feeding will most likely begin earlier this year. There are currently about 4 thousand elk and 450 bison on the refuge. Those numbers should double by mid winter.
NW Wyoming had little rain as usual. A new program was started this year to help with the supplimental feeding. Anyone who hunts or hunted in areas with feed grounds had to buy a Special Elk Management stamp this year for $10. This money goes to feed the elk. If you do not hunt theses areas, you don't pay. If you hunt it only one day, you pay. This is for resident and non-resident hunters alike. I think it is a good program and it is certaily a start. In the past the state has flipped the bill. I heard a few locals complining about it so I told them not to hunt here and go somewhere else. They enjoy the elk and the hunting but don't want to help. Tough Crap.
It'll be interesting to see what they do in Jackson once CWD makes it there. CO has a strict policy against supplemental feeding, regardless of the conditions, to avoid spreading the disease.

Anaconda, "If it wasn't for massive overdevelopment on classice winter ranges all over the west, these animals would be spred out and the over grazing by wildlife wouldn't be a problem...."

Correct! That's the biggest limiting factor in wildlife populations----not enough winter range and less of it every year.

And if you think ".. the poor production is due to 4 years of drought and a massive grasshopper infestation..." you oughta see what the massive infestation of cattle grazing does to wintering grounds every year on public land!
And if you think ".. the poor production is due to 4 years of drought and a massive grasshopper infestation..." you oughta see what the massive infestation of cattle grazing does to wintering grounds every year on public land!

Ithaca, you could be right in a lot of places but on the refuge there is No cattle grazing and none graze in the other feedlots around here either. So I would think that the cattle can no be blamed in this case but the blame can be placed on Mother Nature.
I'm all for supplemental feeding on winter range.
If it wasn't for massive overdevelopment on classice winter ranges all over the west, these animals would be spred out and the over grazing by wildlife wouldn't be a problem.
Who pays for all this winter feeding ? I sure hope some of my out of state hunting licence fees go to this.
I thought the drought wasn't so bad this year, did the N.W. Wyoming area get decent rainfall this summer ?
I think that feeding on the refuge is like plugging the hole in the leaking dike with your finger. The real problem there is that private winter range is being developed at an incredible rate. If you don't do something about the condition of public lands winter range, and control development on private winter range, you'll always be in the position of needing to feed the elk to keep the numbers where they are. By feeding, you artificially increase the number of elk above the carrying capacity of the land. Personally, I say stop the feeding altogether. Maybe when the elk start dying off in large numbers people will be more willing to address the real problems.

IMO the only solution is to improve the forage situation on all public land. Better food supplies at all elevations will keep wildlife in better condition and, especially, at the lower elevations will keep wintering animal more spread out. During some mild winters some elk and deer might not even have to get all the way down to the traditional wintering range or might stay there for shorter periods.

The biggest problem is that cattle eat everything available at all elevations, wherever they're grazing, and then there's not much left for wildlife. Taxpayers subsidize the welfare ranchers and then the welfare ranchers overgraze public land and wildlife suffers.
Could let half to three quarters of the elk population starve to death, that would make the balance complete and no need for extra feed! This is the other option that no one from either side of the fence ever wants to bring up....So what's one to do....
For hundreds of years, nearly 25,000 elk migrated from the mountains to the valley in the winter, where they were still able to get through the snows to the grass underneath. Then just over 100 years ago the valley began to be settled. These migrating elk found their journey blocked by fences and homesteads, and the grasses they used to eat were now harvested and put into haystacks for the farmers cattle.
Even before the homesteaders came, some elk would starve during a hard winter. In the years 1909,1910, and 1911 the winters were very cold, and the snow was so deep, and the valley filled with farmers and ranchers, that disaster was inevitable. Elk began to starve in horrifying numbers. As a result from their starving condition, the elk soon lost their fear of humans. It is reported that some tried to jump through the barn windows in order to eat with the cattle.
Some of the ranchers and farmers tried to help by spreading out haystacks for the elk. But that wasn't enough with the thousands of starving elk. Nearly 3/4 of the elk calves never made it through their first winter. One settler said that he could walk for a mile on elk bodies without ever stepping off.
After those terrible winters the people of Jackson went to the government for help. In 1912, Congress gave money to buy 2760 acres of land for The National Elk Refuge. Today the National Elk Refuge is nearly 25,000 acres. And all these miles of hills, and plains are only 1/4 of what the elk used to call their winter home.
So we are back to the great die off due to starvation, the people arn't going to leave, that would be the only other viable option if we are not going to feed them...Good post Bill!!!
Elkchsr, read my post above. That's what I suggested, although I think you are being facetious and I am serious. By feeding them, we're creating an inflated carrying capacity. By unnaturally congregating them, we're inviting the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis and CWD. As long as the feeding program continues there will be little pressure to do what really needs to be done: stop the conversion of winter range into trophy homes and improve range conditions on private and public lands. I think the money spent to feed the elk would be better used to come up with a more permanent solution. It won't be long before the refuge is faced with the decision to let the elk starve or continue to concentrate them and allow the spread of CWD. Why not start working on the problem now?

Infection rates for CWD have been found to be as high as 40% in areas where deer congregate in the winter. Infection rates in captive facilities can reach 50%. I'd say that the conditions on the refuge in the winter aren't a whole lot different than being in captivity. You've got a lot of animals confined to limited feeding and watering areas. Let's see what happens when CWD reaches Jackson.


<FONT COLOR="#800080" SIZE="1">[ 11-30-2003 09:56: Message edited by: Colorado Oak ]</font>
Yep, I was being facetious but that is also the point, if we are to do this with less devistation than what most with this point of view would do, would be to cut the amounts of suppliments over a period of many years...Part of a big problem I see here though, is the fact that is not so much the winter grounds, (except for the fact that this is where the week and old usually don't make it thru the winter) there will alway's be about the same amoung of elk moving into an area that is populated, along with the other ungulates and we won't be moving the human factor out of the area any time soon. Some thing that may work would be to put smaller amounts of feed spread over larger areas so as to disperse the over crowding. Well at least until some thing better comes along...
I think its a tough call either way... Feed or not to feed. One thing is for sure the grass is in bad shape and a lot of animals could die if we get a really bad winter.

One thing I do know for sure is that when less elk show up and leave the winter range (due to less feed) you can bet your last dollar that there will be all kinds of articles floating around about how the wolves killed off half the elk population...
Just give it a month or two!
Maybe we should quit supplemental feeding programs for humans?
That would help solve ALOT of problems.
Wow and I was just there about a week ago.
I guess there weren't 3,000 elk killed out of the heard this year. i heard that from a Park Ranger when my dad, tim, and I went to turn in the teeth.
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