National Elk Refuge Biological Update, 11 January 2023
National Elk Refuge Feeding Operations
Provided to the public courtesy of Senior Wildlife Biologist, Eric Cole
Supplemental feeding operations began for the season on 11 January 2023, approximately 2 weeks earlier than the long term average start date. I monitor available forage cooperatively with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), and as of 9 January, average available forage had declined to 220 lbs. per acre at key index sites. The decline in available forage was primarily the result of dense, icy snow conditions and relatively high numbers of elk occupying the south end of the Refuge since November. Under the Refuge’s Feeding Reduction Step Down Plan, the goal is to delay feeding initiation by 1 to 2 weeks once available forage declines to 300 lbs. per acre. However, feeding was initiated 2 days after the forage availability threshold was reached to prevent large numbers of elk from leaving the Refuge for private land west and northwest of the Refuge. On the afternoon of 10 January, WGFD staff observed 100 elk moving from the south end of the Refuge into the Gros Ventre River bottom with indications that larger numbers of elk were moving in that direction. The decision to start supplemental feeding on 11 January was based on this observation.
Ungulate Numbers and Distribution
Based on a sample of 45 elk originally captured on NER feedgrounds and equipped with GPS collars, as of 8 January, 93% of collared elk likely to spend the winter on the Refuge were either on the Refuge or immediately east of the Refuge on National Forest winter range. As of 9 January, I counted 6,120 elk in the standard southern NER survey area. On the first day of feeding, we estimated 4,700 elk on feed. Typically, the number of elk participating in the feed program gradually increases over time with peak numbers occurring in early March.
Only 4 bison were observed on the south end of the Refuge on the first day of feeding, but more than 100 had been observed the previous week. Now that the feeding operations have begun, the bison hunting season on the Refuge is closed, and I anticipate that bison numbers will also gradually increase on the Refuge.
60-70 bighorn sheep have regularly been observed in the vicinity of Miller Butte in recent days.
Thanks for your interest,
Eric K. Cole
Senior wildlife biologist, USFWS National Elk Refuge