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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Sleigh Rides on the National Elk Refuge - Jackson, Wyoming

The elk of Jackson are an important part of the culture and history of this area.  You can see their presence hanging in art galleries throughout the downtown area, at the entrance of the square as you walk through the antler arches, and at the preserve itself where winter sleigh rides are advertised. 

We were determined to push through the chaos and for our last day in Wyoming and so, we booked a sleigh ride through the Elk Preserve before heading back to Salt Lake City.  I did this my first time in Wyoming and loved seeing the elk up close while being pulled in a horse-drawn sleigh all while learning about the elk's history in Jackson and how the refuge operates.  

Tickets can only be purchased at the Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center and this is where you meet to start your tour.  You meet at the Visitor's Center about 15 minutes before your tour time and hop on a bus over to the Elk Preserve (this is your last chance for a bathroom too).  

From there, you walk off of the bus and onto a sleigh pulled by two horses.  You tuck into a blanket and snuggle into the person next to you as the horses pull forward and the sled creeks across the snow and to a herd of elk.  Our guide was wonderful and as the horses marched on, she taught us all about the area, the elk, their health, and their job in the refuge.  

Tour Guide:  Sleigh rides are operated by Double H Bar, Inc. (private contractor) 
Cost: $25 a person, tours are 45 minutes to 1 hour (kids under 5 free)
Where:  Sleigh ride tickets are sold in person at the Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, located at 532 North Cache Street, Jackson, WY (you can also make a reservation over the phone).   The visitor's center is open daily from 9AM-5PM and tours are offered from 10am to 4pm. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.  This is where you meet for the tour, not the refuge**
When:  Mid-December through early April, tours depart every 30 minutes 
Extra:  Dress warm!

Elk Facts

  • One of the largest mammals in North America
  • Female elk, called cows, weigh around 500 pounds
  • Males can weigh over 700 pounds and tend to lose weight during the intense breeding season, 
  • Antlers begin growing in the spring and shed each winter
  • While growing, the antlers are covered with a soft layer of skin called "velvet" which is shed in the summer. 
  • The mating season, or rut, takes place in the fall
  • During the rut, bulls experience a dramatic increase in testosterone, making the more aggressive and likely to exhibit dominant behavior
  • Cows generally give birth to one calf - on rare occasions produce twins
  • Calves are born between May and June each year after a gestation period of roughly 8.5 months
  • Calves average 35 pounds and birth and stay with their mother until the following spring, when the next cycles of calves are born
  • They are born both spotted and scentless in order to protect them from predators

The elk herd that lived around Jackson historically wintered in this area.  Development in the 20th century affected migratory routes and elk soon found themselves competing with cattle and ranchers hay reserves. The residents of Jackson were concerned the herd would not survive the winter and started to see crashes in the winter population.

In 1910, the first program was put in place to feed the elk and the Wyoming Legislature appropriated $5,000 for local resident, Stephen Leek, to begin feeding hay to elk on his property, purchasing all of the available hay from local farmers and ranchers to feed the elk. 

The following year an appropriation of $20,000 was made by Congress in order to feed, restock, and investigate issues with the elk population and in 1911, a report was issued that suggested that a winter refuge be established for the elk.

On August 10th, 1912 lands were set aside "for the establishment of a winter game (elk) reserve in the State of Wyoming, lying south of Yellowstone Park...". In 1940, a Presidential Proclamation was issued that changed the name from Elk Refuge to National Elk Refuge.

Thousands of elk migrate to the National Elk Refuge every winter.  The wintering population objective is 5,000 elk however, the size of the wintering herd can reach 6,000-8,000 elk or more. Refuge managers continue to work with the Wyoming Game & Fish Department and Grand Teton National Park to bring the number of wintering animals closer to established targets as outlined in the Bison and Elk Management Plan.

Elk are free to come and go on the National Elk Refuge, but an 8-foot-high fence along the western and southern boundaries helps them avoid conflicts with people and vehicles.

More info on the elk and the web cam

Feeding Program 

They do implement a supplemental feeding program (alfalfa pellets) at a certain point in the winter when the underlying grass and hay has all been consumed or when the snow and ice make it impossible for the elk to reach the grass. The feeding program is a hot issue (to feed, or not to feed a wild population) and after listening to our guide I can see the pros and cons for each.

Winter feeding of elk in Jackson Hole began in 1910 and was originally initiated to reduce winter mortality of elk, thereby helping preserve a population of animals important to local residents and interest groups, as well as to minimize depredation.  Although these immediate factors prompted the initiation of winter feeding, the need for the refuge's winter feeding program is a direct result of reduced access to significant parts of elk native winter range. The creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and the National Elk Refuge in 1912 were crucial in terms of protecting elk and their winter ranges in the greater Jackson Hole area.

Having too many animals in close contact puts a strain on natural sources and also promotes the spread of diseases such as brucellosis and chronic wasting disease.

In consultation with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined a herd size objective of 5,000 elk and 500 bison for the National Elk Refuge in order to avoid overuse of the range and to reduce the spread of diseases.  The refuge offers hunting permits to help keep the herd at this sustainable size of 5,000 elk and 500 bison. 

Wyoming is a magical place.  Elk preserves and sleigh rides, ski mountains and the magic of the wild west.  Two National Parks and a chance to experience what the Wild West felt like.  Wyoming, we will be back, this I know to be true. 

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