Could elk migration routes still be created so elk can migrate out of Jackson Hole?

Unlike deer and pronghorn, are elk trapped forever in the high mountain valley?

The big mountain valley of Jackson Hole, Wyoming is so high and cold that elk did not winter there before Euro-American settlement blocked the late fall migration routes out and settlers eventually began to feed elk at what became the National Elk Refuge.

The deer and the pronghorn in the valley still migrate out via the Gros Ventre River into the upper Green River and from there onto the deserts south of Pinedale and north of Rock Springs. The long pronghorn migration has become celebrated and efforts are being made by private and public agencies to prevent the pronghorn migration from being shut off by development (although read today’s story about Western Watersheds Project new lawsuit against the Forest Service on this matter).  Work is also being done to facilitate more deer out-migration.

Could an elk migration be reestablished so the elk don’t have to stand around eating alfalfa pellets and hay on the federal and state feedlots during the winter?

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. of the Jackson Hole News and Guide looks at the idea.  Sadly his answer is “no.”  Many of the elk were infected with brucellosis by cattle and bison. Migration of the elk is too much of a risk to today’s cattle industry. Moreover, the cattle eat so much of the native forage in the summer, there would be little for the elk to eat should they get out of Jackson Hole.



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  1. Kayla Avatar

    Personally I live here in Jackson Hole and do think that Angus Thuermur is wrong. Do think that the Elk could easily relearn the old migration habits again. And if this step was taken, do think that this would be a benefit to both the elk, the elk refuge, and us. Of course the cattle ranchers would not like it like usual. But am tired of them dictating the policy on everything. I know personally that the Elk if they want to, can migrate from the Thorofare near Hawks Rest to the Elk Refuge in oneday. Now in my opinion, this on concerning the Elk here in the area relearning to migrate on the old routes needs to be pushed here bigtime.

  2. SAP Avatar

    Interesting concept. I’d point out two things: 1) Pronghorn in the Madison Valley, as with many other intermountain valleys, were extirpated by the 1920s. They were reintroduced to the Madison in the 1950s. That population grew from a handful to over 3,000. Sometime within 30 years of reintroduction, they learned how to migrate over Raynolds Pass to Henry’s Lake and other summer range in eastern Idaho. They are still trickling back through to winter range right now.

    2) I think one could find records showing that pronghorn were similarly extirpated from Jackson Hole. While the migration route they follow may be the same one that pronghorn used millenia ago, credible researchers have told me that it is not the case that the route has been in continuous use. Again, evidence that migration can be learned, fairly rapidly.

    Granted, pronghorn are more motivated to get out of snow than elk — they’re tiny, and they rely on their blazing speed over open ground to evade predators. Elk can tolerate a lot more snow.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar


      Related to this,other long range pronghorn migrations are being discovered. Several long range migrations have been discovered in Idaho recently in addition the Raynolds Pass to Henry’s lake (a Montana/Idaho migration) that you refer to.

      1. SAP Avatar

        Neat! Where? Am guessing they probably leave the Leadore area and beat it to the Big Desert.

        We watched several big bunches headed north/downvalley in the Madison the other day. They go through some timber and spend a fair amount of time on slopes steeper than what the habitat models predict.

        Young-of-the-year that separate from their mothers sometimes go astray during this migration to winter range — they were in utero when they made the reverse trip so they don’t know where to go without adults to guide them. We’ve had some little groups end up stranded in the upper Madison, and some that end up migrating down the highway, with sad results.

        1. Nancy Avatar

          Heard a heart warming story the other day SAP from a longtime local about pronghorns.

          A few years ago after an early winter snowfall, the sheriff in a near by town, came upon a good size herd of prognhorn wandering down the highway. They obviously were heading out of the valley for the winter but so much of the fenceline surrounding ranches here are page wire. He followed at a respectable distance, with lights flashing, until they were able to find a fenceline to get under.

          I’m sure his main concern was oncoming traffic but hey, every little bit helps when it comes to wildlife and their efforts to deal with not only the weather but the ever changing landscape.

        2. Ralph Maughan Avatar


          Yes! The leave the Leadore area and from the open foothill lands all the way north to Salmon City, and migrate south over Gilmore Pass into the Birch Creek Valley and then out onto the Snake River Plain high desert near Mud Lake.

          There is another long migration of pronghorn in Idaho further to the west. I’ll will try dig up some info sent to me.

  3. Alan Avatar

    “…..are elk trapped forever in the high mountain valley?..”
    Kind of like bison forever trapped in the high mountain valleys of Yellowstone. Except no one feeds the bison, they are simply left to starve or be slaughtered if they attempt to migrate. Ahh, Mankind! What a wonderful, humane species we are!

  4. CodyCoyote Avatar

    Interesting collateral story in the November 16 Jackson Hole news, about the National Elk Refuge managers wanting to reduce the number of elk that winter there, to forestall the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease.

    No comment.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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