National Elk Refuge

Have you ever wondered what the plains of the United States once looked like, before large populations of people eradicated huge amounts of its largest wildlife? We’re all familiar with the lyrics from “Home on the Range,” which say, in part, “Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam; where the deer and the antelope play.” When most of us envision the earliest days of the west, this is the image that is conjured up. Sadly, that image is difficult to come by these days; if you come to Wyoming, though, the National Elk Refuge offers a unique glimpse into that long-ago time.

History of the National Elk Refuge

The herd of elk that call the National Elk Refuge home currently numbers around 7,500. Originally, though, it is believed that approximately 25,000 called this part of the country home. The herd traditionally migrated from the Jackson Hole area down to southern Yellowstone and back every year. As the city of Jackson began expanding near the end of the nineteenth century, though, the herd’s route was essentially blocked. For that reason, the elk herd started to shrink. Before the situation got any worse, local concerned citizens decided to take action.

The Elk Refuge is Established

Based on concerns about the rapidly declining size of the elk herd, the National Elk Refuge was established in 1912. It was designed to protect the largest elk herd on the planet; approximately 23,000 acres were reserved for the purpose. That acreage is located between Jackson to the northeast, Grand Teton National Park to the north and Bridger-Teton National Forest to the east. In addition to being home to the massive herd of elk, the refuge is home to approximately 1,000 bison and a decent number of bighorn sheep.

What the National Elk Refuge Does

In addition to providing a safe haven for the elk, the National Elk Refuge helps the herd survive the very punishing winters that occur in this part of Wyoming. During the winter, staff at the refuge feed the herd; a culling program is also in place. The culling program is a lottery-controlled hunting program that keeps the population of the elk herd in check. It is highly regulated, too, in order to ensure that the elk are not abused or mistreated. Hunters vie for coveted licenses to hunt within the refuge each and every year.

The Boy Scouts’ Contribution

It’s natural to wonder how a massive undertaking like the National Elk Refuge stays funded. As a part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it receives plenty of government funds. However, contributions by the efforts of the Boy Scouts of America help considerably. Each year, the Boy Scouts auctions off thousands of pounds of shed elk antlers - about 10,000 to 11,000 pounds are auctioned per year. 80% of the proceeds are given to the National Elk Refuge in order to keep it fully functioning. If you’re lucky enough to visit the refuge, remember this selfless contribution.

Visiting the Refuge

If you’re strictly interested in catching a glimpse of the elk herd, it’s easy to do. In fact, a quick drive along the main road - Refuge Road - should afford you a decent view. Hiking opportunities are extremely limited; most people don’t even get the chance to do that sort of exploring. If you’d like to get a closer look at this majestic herd, a wintertime visit is in order. Between December and April, sleigh rides are offered within the refuge. It’s a truly memorable experience and one that is well worth your time. If you’re in the Jackson area during that time of year, be sure to do it.

A Remarkable Refuge

Elk populations around the world have dwindled considerably. This sad fact is somewhat mitigated by the amazing work that’s done at the National Elk Refuge. There is truly no place like it anywhere else on Earth; if you are planning a visit to Wyoming, put the refuge at the top of your must-see list. You will probably never get another opportunity to see so many elk in a single place. As you gaze at the huge herd of elk, you can easily imagine what life was like in the west so many centuries ago.