Wintering elk on Refuge to be reduced to 5000 to 7000-

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. of the Jackson Hole News and Guide has written another article on the problem of too many wintering elk in the vicinity of Jackson Hole — too many elk at the feedgrounds and national elk refuge to avoid a plague of elk diseases.  Here it is, lengthy, but important reading for those who care about the Jackson Hole elk herd and all the animals that depend on it or are affected by it.

After years of analysis and a court order this summer the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided they had to reduce the number of elk wintering on the Refuge. The goal for the Jackson Hole Elk herd of about 12,000 is now to have no more than 7000 on the Refuge at maximum in the winter (preferably 5000).

Everyone is talking about the new book “Where the Elk Roam” by past National Elk Refuge biologist Bruce Smith. I hope my copy finally arrives today.  Smith argues that the Jackson Hole elk can be protected best by allowing only 2700 on the Refuge.

It is important to realize that allowing only 5000 to 7000 on the Refuge does not in itself reduce the herd’s size though that will be a goal.  I should add that in the 20 or so years I have been following the controversy, reducing the size of the herd has been been the goal, and it has never been met and is always resisted by outfitters, guides, and local tourism boosters.

Will anything change?

Note that this article should be read along with the article of a few days ago, Could elk migration routes still be created so elk can migrate out of Jackson Hole?



About The Author

Ralph Maughan

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.

18 Responses to Looming diseases and court order leads to plan for major reduction of animals at National Elk Refuge

  1. Jon Way says:

    I find it incredible that wolves aren’t given any consideration here in the refuge’s plans. Hello, they could be the ones to pick out and cull diseased elk and to naturally spread them out – all for free. But that means WY would have to come up with a sane wolf plan. Heck, they (wolves) might already be preventing the spread of CWD without us even knowing it…

    • Savebears says:


      Although I agree with wolves being able to help control this situation, but I will state, the wolves so far have been quite expensive, they are in no way “All for free”

      • Jon Way says:

        Save Bears,
        Ralph answered my concern perfectly well but I will add that I am not talking about wolf mgmt b.c yes that has been expensive. I am talking about now that they are here, it is a free service to control disease, etc. It is really 2 separate issues that in a way could be mutually exclusive (managing wolves and managing elk). Of course, that shouldn’t be the case if we humans take an ecosystem perspective outlook.

    • Ralph Maughan says:


      I agree. While the wolves are as Save Bears says, not really “all for free,” their expense is almost entirely generated by humans deciding that the wolves have to be collared, monitored, and vengeance rained down on them if they kill a cow calf or a ewe.

      • Savebears says:


        Both sides of this issue have made wolves very expensive, they are in no way “free” We have spent a heck of allot of money on them.

        • Ralph Maughan says:

          Save Bears,

          As Ed Bangs and many others have said, (to paraphrase) the biology of restoring wolves is quite simple, but the animal is a symbol of competing human views of the world and that is where is complexity lies.

    • TC says:

      It’s an interesting thought – wolves in the open on the refuge – but given the proximity to the town of Jackson and significant human habitations (including some ranches) I don’t know how this would work in the real world.

      • There were wolves on the refuge last winter and I saw three different packs(one with 13 , one with 8 and another with 4 members) in the adjacent Grand Teton National Park last winter.
        The ranches now in and next to the park would be prime candidates for purchase by conservation groups if the bill mentioned previously on this blog, allowing the purchase of grazing rights, were to become a reality.That would reduce the pressure from the livestock industry to control wolves in Jackson Hole.

      • Headwaters says:

        TC, I’m in the Alberta Rockies. High tolerance for visible wolves close to town in Jasper and Banff (both those towns are in national parks) but visible wolves develop lead poisoning quickly near towns like Cardston and Pincher Creek in ranching country. Dispersers from Montana try and colonize all that great habitat but they just don’t survive. So far no known CWD there but it has been spreading west up the Red Deer and Bow Rivers from the cluster of game farms near Lloydminster that brought it to us originally.

  2. Headwaters says:

    Jon Way – right on! I’m not aware of any place in North America where healthy populations of coursing predators like wolves overlap with endemic CWD.
    By the same token, CWD is almost universally associated with high ungulate populations and nose-to-nose feeding (read, game farms mostly).
    Nature works, given a chance. Worth a try in Jackkson Hole.

    • Paul says:


      I was speaking with a couple of coworkers yesterday about this very topic here in Wisconsin. They are both deer hunters they brought up the subject of CWD and how it is only rampant in the southern third of the state where there is little to no wolf presence. In the northern part of the state where there is a good size wolf and bear population there have been few if any CWD cases found. I somehow doubt that this is a coincidence. Is it really that hard for fish and game departments to make the correlation between wolves and CWD free deer and elk herds?

      • TC says:

        Pretty easy to explain the high prevalence of CWD in southern Wisconsin – it’s pretty well agreed that’s where it was introduced. It does not spread like wildfire – in fact, for an infectious disease it spreads relatively slowly and insidiously (without anthropogenic assistance like moving infected animals across state lines in the game farm world).

        Also – CWD is not universally assocated with “high ungulate populations and nose-to-nose feeding”. The areas with the highest CWD prevalance (central and southeast Wyoming, areas of the Colorado front range) do not share either of these factors.

        Let science take its course. The impact of predators like wolves on CWD prevalence, persistence, and transmission is all based on epidemiological/disease ecology modeling. Nobody REALLY knows other than the wolves, and they’re not speaking (yet). We will eventually know in Wyoming – this grand experiment is inexorably rolling forward as the disease moves further west and north.

  3. JB says:

    So Wyoming is going to shoot wolves for killing elk, and shoot elk for being overabundant? Do I have this right?

  4. Ralph Maughan says:

    By the way, Bruce L. Smith’s book “Where Elk Roam: Conservation and Biopolitics of Our National Elk Herd,” did come in the mail to me today. It is very well written. I am about 20 pages into it. When I have read it, I’m sure I will know a number of important facts I don’t know now.

  5. SEAK Mossback says:

    JB —
    This is somewhat reminiscent of the 1960s and the northern Yellowstone elk herd. Given the now-popular narrative that wolves have destroyed the northern herd (now counted at something like 5 thousand animals), it is interesting to note that for years until the mid-60s the government considered it so over-populated that NPS purposefully slaughtered and transplanted thousands of elk with a goal of holding it to a level about where it is now. I knew individual rangers who had shot over 400 elk. While the elk reduction program was unpopular with many locals, I don’t think it generated the level of controversy around the park that wolves have. An ongoing, fiscally expensive elk control program was perhaps less controversial in local states (although not nationally) than letting wolves have a similar numerical effect beyond the bounds of direct human effort and control.

  6. Dan says:

    Great opportunity to transplant all those excess elk to north central Idaho where we have the wolves but need more elk. It wouldn’t be the first time that elk were transplanted?

    • Ralph Maughan says:


      I won’t comment on the idea that wolves have depleted elk numbers in north central Idaho, but I need to point out that transplanting Jackson Hole elk would not be a good idea in any case. Many of these elk have brucellosis, a disease complete absent in almost all of Idaho. Also, it is possible some have already contracted CWD.

  7. Having just read this string, and given that Ralph has plugged my book, Where Elk Roam, I felt I should weigh in a bit on the elk/feedgrounds/CWD/wolves conversation.

    Wolves recolonized Jackson Hole during the winter of 1998-99 after an absence of 70 years. Every year since, wolves have been seen and have hunted elk on the National Elk Refuge (and elsewhere in Jackson Hole), and have denned on the refuge every year but one since 2005. With five packs now roaming Jackson Hole, that may be as many pack territories as the valley can accomodate. The Jackson herd remains about 1,000 elk over objective after more than a decade of wolves back in the valley.

    The hypothesis that wolves will limit either the spread or amplification of CWD in elk remains to be seen. But a new paper in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases (Wild et al. 2011) suggests that is the case with deer, based on mathematical modelling. I suspect if any predator can do so in elk, it will be wolves, based upon their hunting strategy. But in the absence of rigorous study, we may never know even as CWD-infected elk and wolves become sympatric.

    Honestly, we really don’t want to find out even if the results validate a disease-limiting hypothesis. CWD in feedground elk is likely to be a prolonged drain on elk if not a disaster where thousands are crowded onto feedgrounds. This will largely result from the seeding of environments with infectious prions where the elk are gathered for 6-7 months each year. Cervids don’t mount an immune response to pathogenic prions, the disease is 100% fatal, and transmission occurs from direct contact between animals and indirectly through environmental contamination. Prions persist for years, based on one study of the pastures used by scrapie-infected sheep, and will continue to accumulate over time on feedgrounds.

    The best medicine is preventative medicine. End the overstocking of elk on limited ranges, especially where artificially high numbers are maintained by winter feeding.


November 2011


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey