Wyoming is a state where a person can experience what life may have been like long before towns started springing up in the West. Obviously travel and the abundance of wildlife are two areas that have changed greatly.
While in Jackson, I was able to have one of those experiences thanks to the National Elk Refuge.
Jamie and I signed up for the National Elk Refuge sleigh ride tour at the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitors Center. While waiting on our 10am tour, we enjoyed exploring their great educational displays and browsing the massive collection of wildlife found in the area. On display were elk, wolves, eagles, bear, sheep, coyote and several other species. In addition to learning a thing or two about the refuge we were also able to purchase souvenirs there.
At 10am, we departed the visitor center in route to the refuge. When we arrived we were welcomed by wranglers who drive the teams of horses responsible for pulling the sleighs.
Being it is now officially spring and temperatures have often exceeded the freezing point combined with the fact snowfall isn’t what we have seen in previous years, the wranglers decided it would be best if we took a wagon tour.
Nonetheless, we were excited to be able to get up close to the elk. My sister-in-law and her family were able to join us so it was a real treat to have this time together.
By 10:20am we had the wagon loaded, cameras ready and were and headed out.
In no time we were among a herd of 2,500 elk. Talk about every outdoorsman’s dream. At our fingertips were elk that would land in the record books should they be harvested. But what a beautiful way to see a 6x7 bull elk scratch its head with its hind leg. Looking at a large herd of elk with the Grand Teton Mountains in the background is a moment none of us will soon forget.
Prior to western settlement elk ranged freely from east to west in the United States. Native Americans livelihood was dependent in part to the massive number of free ranging elk. Every part of the game animal was used to sustain life. Many artifacts can be found in Wyoming museums across the state to include a pristine collection in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.
In the late 1800s when settlers arrived in the Jackson area, the elk population in the Jackson valley is said to have been 25,000.
By 1912 residents knew a protected area was needed. Not only were livestock and elk competing for the same food, harsh winters and disease had taken a heavy toll on the elk population.
Today, Over 7,500 elk make their winter home on the 25,000 acre National Elk Refuge in Jackson. The elk migrate from Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park as well as nearby national forests.
Despite being largely fenced in, the elk are not contained. Due to the daily feeding that takes place elk have learned it is easier to survive the harsh winters by migrating to the refuge. The fence is simply used to help keep the elk off of the highway and out of harm’s way.
On the National Elk Refuge you can get a glimpse of what life may have been like in the old days. Transportation is still sleigh or wagon. Work here is still done using teams of horses, and elk are abundant. If you’re lucky you might even spot a wolf or bald eagle.
I’m certainly grateful that we had this opportunity but even more I’m pleased for the benefit the refuge offers future generations.