A cow elk is dragged by horse to the Blacktail Ponds Overlook during the Elk Reduction Program in Grand Teton National Park. A lawsuit filed Monday by two photographers seeks to stop the hunt. (© Thomas D. Mangelsen/Mangelsen Stock)

Two Teton County photographers filed a lawsuit in Washington, D.C. Monday seeking to stop the annual elk hunt in Grand Teton National Park.

Tim Mayo and Kent Nelson, operating as Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, target the “elk reduction program,” in which hunters killed 202 elk last year. The hunt also resulted in the shooting of a grizzly bear, a federally protected species, in 2012.

The suit goes beyond hunting alone, challenging supplemental winter elk feeding on the nearby National Elk Refuge. The hunt violates a slew of federal laws, the suit claims, including the Grand Teton Act, the National Park Organic Act, the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

Nelson and Mayo ask a judge to declare the 2014 hunt illegal, along with the park’s “policy, practice and pattern,” of adopting it annually. The suit challenges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2013 determination that park hunters could kill four additional grizzlies by 2022 before Grand Teton would run afoul of the Endangered Species Act.

The suit seeks reversal of that Fish and Wildlife “incidental take” number. It also asks for an environmental review, with public comment, of the park’s elk reduction program.

The legal action names National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Daniel Ashe and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell as defendants.

A Fish and Wildlife spokesman said his agency does not comment on pending litigation. Grand Teton officials did not comment by press time Monday evening.

“The various laws define a rigorous process which the agencies that authorize and administer the hunt are required to follow,” Nelson said Monday in a statement. “We are alleging that the agencies’ legal obligations were sometimes ignored and at other times were essentially rubber-stamped without performing legally required due diligence.”

Before the suit was filed, a park spokeswoman and biologist outlined how and why the elk reduction program is authorized each year. Among other reasons, the hunt is necessary to ensure the Jackson Elk Herd remains within population objectives and evenly distributed across four summer ranges, spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs and Grand Teton Senior Wildlife Biologist Steve Cain said last week. The Wyoming Game and Fish objective for the herd stands at 11,000 while biologists estimate 11,600 in the herd in the last annual winter census.

Hunt keeps elk distributed, park says

Without a hunt, more and more of the elk in the herd would move to Grand Teton, overwhelming habitat there as they abandoned other areas, Skaggs and Cain said.

“That’s not desirable ecologically or for any other reason,” Cain said. Stopping the hunt would “greatly affect recreational hunting and the ability to manage the herd outside the park.”

Mayo and Nelson’s suit comes as the public continues to scrutinize the hunt, which is highly unusual in a National Park. The law expanding Grand Teton in 1950 allows the Elk Reduction Program “for the purpose of proper management and protection of the elk.”

In cooperation with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Grand Teton has staged the hunt in all but two of the last 64 years, Skaggs said. The 2014 hunt began Saturday.

The 2012 Thanksgiving Day killing of a grizzly by hunters in Grand Teton emerges as a pivotal incident in the suit. Hunters sprayed the advancing 534-pound bear with bear pepper spray and shot it dead, practically simultaneously, park reports say.

Horsemen drag a grizzly bear from the Snake River bottom after hunters killed it at Schwabacher Landing during the Elk Reduction Program in Grand Teton National Park in 2012. Grand Teton has since closed 8 miles of the wooded area to hunting. (© Thomas D. Mangelsen/Mangelsen Stock)

That put Grand Teton at the limit of anticipated grizzly deaths due to the hunt. One more and the hunt would have violated the Endangered Species Act.

The park closed 8 miles of wooded Snake River bottomlands to hunting as a result. It is the only agency to require hunters to carry bear spray.

Meantime, Fish and Wildlife increased the number of grizzly bears it predicts hunters will kill from 2007 through 2022. The original prediction was one; in 2013 Fish and Wildlife boosted that to five.

“The FWS provided no explanation as to how it derived these “take” figures, which dramatically increased the permitted take of threatened grizzly bears,” the suit says. “The FWS did not impose any new binding measures on the NPS to ensure that these new take figures would not be exceeded, and the FWS also did not impose any new reasonable and prudent measures or terms and conditions with which NPS must comply.”

Fish and Wildlife did say it expected the hunt to result in a “relatively high risk of hunter-grizzly bear contacts.” The suit claims, too, that Fish and Wildlife didn’t examine the disruption to bears’ habits caused by hunters leaving gut piles behind in the park.

Grizzlies have expanded their range, making the Fish and Wildlife increase from its 2007 “incidental take” number necessary, Cain said. “There has been measurable, considerable change in grizzly bear activity and presence in the south end of the park since 2007,” Cain said.

Grizzly bears expand range

Evidence of the expansion includes the appearance of grizzly mom no. 399 who showed up on the elk refuge during the bison hunt in 2012, the first recent appearance of a grizzly on that preserve.

That opened the door.

“Last year during the hunt multiple bears were seen multiple times on the refuge,” Cain said. “They were picking up gut piles.”

Two weeks ago Game and Fish trapped a grizzly in The Aspens subdivision, about 6 miles south of Grand Teton, the Jackson Hole News&Guide reported. A man walking his dog “ended up in a closer situation than he would have liked,” the paper said, quoting a Game and Fish biologist.

Yet Fish and Wildlife failed to go through “formal steps,” in increasing the “incidental take” number, the lawsuit says. The federal agency in charge of endangered species also failed to provide “any biological or other basis for the increased amount of take of grizzly bears authorized,” the suit states.

 Federal documents show Fish and Wildlife did consider the overall ecosystem grizzly population and trends.

Grand Teton did not ask for a particular increase, Cain said.

“We don’t really have any input on what that take is,” Cain said. “The park did not propose a number. That number was given to us,” by Fish and Wildlife.

“Our hope is we don’t have any more bears killed in the park, ever,” Cain said. “Our management goal is zero bears killed by hunters. It always has been and always will be.”

Hunters fire up a chainsaw to butcher elk that were killed at Schwabacher Landing in Grand Teton National Park during the Elk Reduction Program. Two photographers who have sued to stop the hunt say it disrupts their ability to capture elk behaving naturally. (© Thomas D. Mangelsen/ Mangelsen Stock)

Mayo and Nelson’s challenge also incorporates the practice of supplemental feeding at the refuge. In the 2007 Bison and Elk Management Plan, refuge officials sought to reduce the number of elk on supplemental feed to 5,000.

However, “the number of elk being fed with supplemental feeding in the Elk Refuge has increased from 7,279 elk in 2007, when the Management Plan was adopted, to 8,300 elk in 2014,” the suit says. “The FWS is not in fact in the process of phasing out the supplemental feeding of elk … despite the fact that the FWS is now already in year 7 of the 15-year Plan during which the phase-out is supposed to be accomplished.

“The supplemental feeding program also artificially increases the number of elk that would otherwise be in the area, which in turn has become the justification NPS employs to allow the killing of elk each year via the (Elk Reduction Program)” the suit says. The filing quotes federal documents that say “eliminating winter feeding on the refuge would negate the need for hunting elk,” in the park.

Parts of the Jackson Elk Herd  also are fed in winter on state feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre River drainage.

Ultimately, “… NPS has never made a finding that … hunting is ‘necessary for the proper management and protection of the elk,’” the suit says. “Nor … has NPS ever analyzed the basis for, or validity of, the 11,000 elk population goal upon which the hunt is based.”

Park hunt has gotten smaller

Grand Teton has made significant strides toward reducing the hunt, Cain said.

“We’ve had successful recovery of the grizzly bear and wolf,” Cain said. “Natural regulation is playing a much larger part in the park than it did in the last 50-60 years.”

That’s part of the reason there are only 650 park hunting permits available this year instead of the 3,000 that have been offered in the past, he said. The hunt is now in a “maintenance state,” Cain said.

The park has stopped hunting north of Spread Creek, Elk Hunt Area 79, except on a very limited basis.

“Nobody ever dreamed Area 79 would close,” Cain said. “That’s a significant change.”

“We have been near and at objective,” he said of the number of elk in Grand Teton. Crunching park and state hunt numbers, the park hunt accounted for 14 percent of the Jackson Elk Herd harvest last season.

The Jackson Elk Herd summers in Grand Teton, southern Yellowstone, plus the Teton Wilderness and Gros Ventre/Mt Leidy Highlands areas of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The herd winters on the refuge, run by Fish and Wildlife, at the state feedgrounds and on natural winter range around Jackson Hole.

Photographer Kent Nelson, one of two lensmen who have sued to stop the Grand Teton National Park Elk Reduction Program, got this picture of a band of elk retreating toward safe ground after running into hunters. The hunt targets resident Teton elk and elk from Yellowstone and the Teton Wilderness that migrate through protected parts of Grand Teton. (W. Kent Nelson)

Hunters killed 1,437 elk from the herd last hunting season, including in Grand Teton, on the Bridger-Teton and on private land. Two thousand eight hundred and seventy-four hunters took to the field, spending 19,000 “recreation days” hunting, Game and Fish reports say.

Elk killed in the park hunt include some from southern Yellowstone and the Teton Wilderness that traverse protected parts of Grand Teton to reach the refuge in the fall. Hunting in Grand Teton is allowed only in parts of the park east of the Snake River.

Elk reduction will be necessary, “as long as we maintain 11,000 or more elk with similar diet and migrations,” Cain said. Reducing or stopping the hunt “would only occur if the population itself was significantly reduced.”

The population bottleneck is winter range, Cain said.

Winter range on a truck

“Right now both the refuge and State of Wyoming bring in winter range on trucks through their feeding programs,” Cain said. “Since the winter range is the limiting factor, the elk managers are trying to equitably distribute the elk that take advantage of these feeding programs.”

If park hunting stopped and Grand Teton’s summer population of elk doubled or tripled, those elk would make up a larger portion of the herd. Correspondingly, there would be fewer elk on the other three summer ranges.

If park hunting stopped, elk would learn of the sanctuary, as have Jackson Hole bison. Hunters can’t shoot bison in the park — only on the refuge and National Forest.

“The state is finding it very difficult to attain an adequate bison harvest,” Cain said. “They learn they are safe within the confines of the park.”

Similarly, “all those elk would have to do is go to Grand Teton and not get hunted,” Cain said.

Distribution of elk around Jackson Hole would shift. “Most people view that as undesirable,” Cain said.

Today, about 1,600 elk summer in Grand Teton, Cain said. There used to be between 2,000 and 2,500.

Click to view map

Historically, the Grand Teton elk reduction mainly targeted migrating elk. Before Congress expanded the park in 1950, cattle grazing kept the Grand Teton resident population low, Cain said. Now, those elk are also targets.

If hunting in Grand Teton stopped, “You may have a much greater portion of Teton Wilderness elk that learn to migrate at night from summer range to the park and then to safe areas of the National Elk Refuge,” Cain said. The result could be skewed migration routes, lost recreational hunting and increased impacts on Grand Teton. The herd would be “harder to manage.”

The result could be disproportional use of fall transitional range, he said.

Hunt numbers reviewed each year

Grand Teton and Game and Fish determine the annual hunt numbers together, Cain said.

“We review all the most recent information, summer classification, winter counts, harvest of previous year,” he said. “Usually what occurs is Game and Fish makes their recommendation, we make a counter-recommendation [and] throughout the meeting we basically come to an agreement.”

The suit says elk hunting in the park disrupts Mayo’s enjoyment of the preserve.

”The noise of gunshots and the commotion caused by the hunt participants scares the elk and much of the other wildlife Mr. Mayo wishes to photograph, making it much more difficult to photograph these animals in their natural state,” the filing says. “In addition, when they enter areas open to hunters, the elk, which are wary of hunters, cease much of their instinctual behavior and rush their movements, which under normal circumstances would include much slower travel, majestic bugling, and other rutting behaviors, which enthusiasts like Mr. Mayo enjoy witnessing and photographing.”

The hunt also is hazardous to visitors, the suit claims.

“On one occasion, while taking photographs, Mr. Mayo’s life was endangered when a hunt participant carelessly shot towards US Highway 26 where Mr. Mayo was standing, and several stray bullets hit the ground within several feet of Mr. Mayo,” the filing says.

“The hunts increase the risk of human-bear conflicts, which in turn result in grizzly bears being shot, thus decreasing the number of bears that can be observed and photographed by Mr. Mayo.”

The suit makes similar claims regarding Nelson, who spends 150 days a year photographing wildlife professionally in Grand Teton.

The park is required to preserve scenery, and natural and historic objects and wildlife, but failed to make what’s known as a “non-impairment” finding with regard to the hunt, the suit contends. Authorities authorized the hunt without an environmental review allowing public comment, thus violating the National Environmental Policy Act, the suit says.

(Click to download pdf of the complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief)

Read more WyoFile coverage on these issues:
Park hunters likely to kill more grizzlies, Oct. 14, 2014
Widely used elk vaccine called ineffective, Oct. 14, 2014
Feds OK more female grizzly bear killings in cattle conflict zone, Sept. 5, 2014
Yellowstone grizzly bears remain genetically isolated, Sept. 2, 2014

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. I hunted the Grand Teton Park in 1975 and harvested a 5×5 Bull Elk on the north face of Blacktail Butte! Another Texas hunting buddy harvested a mature Cow Elk on the nearby hay fields! It was an awesome experience and we’d love to do it again, even though we’re both retired law enforcement officers and in our 70’s now!
    I’m appalled to see all the opposition against hunting in the Grand Tetons! The world is so eat up with stupidity over wild game, it just makes me sick ! Maybe a grizzly or a mountain lion can teach these people about their place in the “food chain”!
    Good luck!

    Ronnie Lawson

  2. Are these the same photographers that sell their pictures to people that land at the only airport in a National Park in the middle of the primary sage grouse habitat in Teton County?

  3. You do not realize that the land was given to the government with stipulations that hunting would be permitted if hunting is not allowed the land wil be taken back as for the wolf comment you need to research information about wolves they are the most wasteful animal they kill and eat only a little and then kill again without finishing the first animal a pack of Wolves can desamate a heard with in weeks there presence alone causes females to abort there young leaving the heard to not repopulate Please people leave the Wyoming way of life alone you do not live here so do not pretend you know how things are I have hunted the park for many years the Bear population has grown in Wyoming and the agencies are not being truthful about the numbers cause there are many more bears killed then in just TP Theses problems will exist anywhere and confrontations will happen no matter what we do or are educated

  4. Hunters have for years paid for wildlife management through purchases of licenses, stamps, etc. Also through federal taxes on firearms, ammunition and so forth. Photographers contribute nothing towards said management. Until they do I have no sympathy for them.

  5. I support hunters and hunting. My dad was a hunter, I have been a hunter, my brother-in-law and nephew are hunters. Hunting is a wonderful past-time, sport, activity and an American tradition. What happens in GTNP and the National Elk Refuge is not hunting and I seriously doubt that any local hunter participates. Those non-locals who “hunt” in GTNP pull their vehicle to the side of the road, hop out, and slaughter unsuspecting wildlife that have been habituated to human visitors. True hunters get into nature and work hard on foot, horseback, or ATV to find an animal, select it carefully, and generally harvest and freeze it for the family’s meat supply. They are not out-of-state shooters who pay Wyoming Game and Fish big bucks to get easy prey.

    Wyoming has vast public lands and is blessed with abundant wildlife – a hunter’s paradise. Why attack the economy of Jackson Hole by depleting the wildlife visitors come to see? Why scare off the visitors with warnings to wear blaze orange and hike at the risk of being shot by an inexperienced, opportunistic national park hunter? Why is GTNP the only national park where elk hunting is part of the legislation that created the park?

    I support real hunters in the tradition of my father – they wouldn’t consider killing wildlife in our national park.

    1. To answer your question GTNP has hunting because it was a political compromise necessary in order to get the park created. You can read a history of the park’s creation here- http://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/upload/creation.pdf

      People who enjoy the park today should read that document and remember that without hunting, they very likely would not have a park. That is usually an unknown fact or conveniently forgotten. The existence of the park is taken for granted. Obviously, this remains a very contentious issue today, many decades later.

      I too am a hunter but am not interested in hunting in the park. That being said, the only alternative would be a controlled cull, similar to what is done in Rocky Mountain National park. You can learn about that here: http://www.nps.gov/romo/parkmgmt/elkveg_fact_sheet.htm

      If you would prefer this method of herd reduction, then argue for it. Regardless, herd reduction will have to take place as long as elk are fed in the winter.

      The key element that seems to be misunderstood is that the park does not exist in a vacuum. Re-read Steve Cain’s analysis above and his reasoning for needing this, or a similar tool. If the park were to be a pure refuge, it would not lead to the result that you think, rather it will lead to a more undesirable outcome not just for elk, but for all other wildlife that rely on the habitat.

      1. Well said. Its interesting what gets ignored in the name “non-partisan” journalism. the sierra cub is trying, though. He also quietly rewrote his story on the grizzlies of the upper Green. Angus needs to
        understand that our local
        biologists from different agencies, with different philosophies,
        are still very capable and able to come to valid scientific and cultural agreements
        for the common good of people and wildlife. Sierra cub emotional
        journalism and special interest litigation is pure political and economic pathology
        . Wyofile needs to do better if it
        wants the support of Wyoming.

      2. What you say is true and, yes, I have read and re-read the enabling legislation and you are right that the park would not have expanded to its current size without many compromises.But, that was 60 years ago and now the 3.2 million annual visitors should have something to say about how their public lands are used.

        While we all have opinions about what is ‘best’ for the park and its wildlife, the science does not support the need to kill or ‘cull.’ The wildlife will manage themselves, just fine. The natural predators will take the old, the sick, and the weak and keep the herds healthy. Hunters tend to take the large, the strong, and the healthy thus weakening the herd and making it more prone to disease.

        It is better people management that the park should focus upon, not wildlife management.

        1. I’m all for better people management. However I disagree that you can return to a total non-management strategy for wildlife in a small park (and GTNP is relatively small). Ever since non-native humans settled in Jackson Hole and the GYA, their presence and their significant alterations to the landscape have changed the pre-existing wildlife patterns dramatically. People have eliminated large amounts of winter range and fenced across migration corridors. Top predators were virtually eliminated and then only through wildlife management practices, rehabilitated or reintroduced. The system is no longer “natural” – it is a highly managed one. People are the cause of the problems, and so people must actively manage the ecosystem.

          What you suggest was the practice for many years at RMNP, and the elk overran the park. So, I suggest your notion of a total return to a wild state in a relatively small area, surrounded by an unnatural system (21st century civilization) has been proven not to work. I don’t think the science is as clear cut as you do.

          The genie is out of the bottle, never to be returned.

  6. Proof Wildlife Advocates are anti-hunters that do nothing to benefit wildlife but get rich with lawsuits.

    Instead of introducing diseased Canadian wolves and injecting them into Idaho as a seed state, YNP should of allowed selective permits for hunting elk to be distributed between groups such as: Disabled Military Vets, Wishing Star Children, Elderly and Handicapped Hunters, Fresh Air Kid Hunts, Wounded Warriors etc.

    Sportsmen are the real conservationists that fund the wildlife the advocates like to “sue” over.

  7. Alex, we added a pdf link at the bottom of the story. Thank you for asking for the document. — Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief

  8. Alex, we added a pdf link at the bottom of the story. Thank you for asking for the document. — Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief

  9. I think you need to worry about the wolf population taking out the elk, not the hunters. Besides, there are only so many elk tags given out each year for different areas, just so they keep the population under control.
    You tree hugging “photographers” need to go take photos in the city and stay away from our mountains. Mind your own business!

    1. They both can exist together. You’re doing the same thing they are….I want to take photos so stop the hunt…I want to hunt so stop taking photos and leave us alone. Extremes are the problem….I say the same thing to them.

  10. If hunting is ceased… Since the herd is not captive, and hunting is allowed on private property, the herd will move to a safe haven, congregating on the refuge. This high concentration will overuse the natural resources (food) on the area, and be detrimental to the environment that environmentalists are trying to protect. The best management tool for wildlife numbers is hunters, both by efficiency and cost.

    1. DITTO, Chris…There have already been to species collapses in this country, because of over confident management who had hunting banned. One in N. J. and one in Arizona. Most States do a fine job of satisfying hunters and photographers. The main problem with the agencies is…these people think to much.

      1. The one week December bear hunt in NJ has allowed the population to get out of hand tp the point where F&W have to kill the bears as they cause havoc during the rest of the year. A Rutgers student was recently killed by a predatory black bear in a gun free zone where the student was denied the ability to protect himself with a firearm or Bear Spray which is also prohibited in the backwards politically incorrect state.

  11. stop hunting the wolf and the elk numbers will naturally balance out, its not rocket science…

    1. Michelle, do you live out west? Do you understand if there are no means to control deer and elk population, that disease and over grassing would hurt the animals in the long run let alone hurting the Echo System. Oh and your dear wolves, have you seen what they have done to Yellowstone Park? I have watched videos of wolves killing Elk in huge numbers and leaving the carcass to rot instead of eating what they kill. I have been to the park over 15 times in the last 20 years and since the introduction of the wolves the number of animals that are viewed in the park has been hit hard. I went just this past July and I seen 4 Elk, 1 Moose, 8 Antelope, and about 20 Buffalo in the whole park. No Deer, no Goats, and no Sheep! My 1st trip into the park in 1994, I would see huge herds of Elk, Buffalo, Deer around the park, a few smaller herds of Antelope,some Goats and about dozen Sheep and Moose. Tell me that Hunters do more damage than the wolves. Hunters select hunt and wolves just take! Read the article and see how the animals can also damage species of plants and trees if numbers are out of control. If you loves wolves than put them in your backyard!
      Studies have been done on how an Elk herd can play havoc on the echo system far back as in the 50’s. They had an area in Montana that they was no hunting for about 10 years. There was very little grass in the area plus the amount of new tree growth was very low. Also in this study, showed how the herd was affected too by disease and early death. So adding one does not help the over all, management of the animals and keeping the numbers in check is the best way of keeping the over all of the animals and the echo system in check! But being an green peace person, your eyes will not be open to any understanding of how life works as well you are probably a climate changer believer too!


  12. You people clearly don’t understand the artificial system created by such management practices, and the fact the herd has to be actively managed so the elk don’t overbrowse since they are unnaturally concentrated by feed. Balancing the system is more important than you taking good pictures from your car!

  13. Fantastic. The annual “elk reduction program” in Grand Teton National Park has been a national disgrace allowed by federal and Wyoming wildlife officials. Thank you to Tim Mayo and Kent Nelson for taking action. Let’s hope that the federal district court agrees that this annual slaughter of elk must be stopped – before death or serious injury to a park visitor or to another federally-protected grizzly bear.

    1. Always thinken about yourself, huh Bob. If you would carry a gun or pepper spray in the wilderness you might be able to protect yourself from those mean ole hungry bears and cats you want to pet. LOL I hope the judge has a full understanding of single lens reflex cameras and wildlife management, but mostly I hope the judge is a hunter.

  14. Congratulations – this is something that hundreds of other regional photographers and hundreds of thousands of park visitors support. It is about time that someone tries to put an end to hunting in what should be a place of refuge.

    1. I refer you to Chris’s comments above if you want to have any wildlife at all. If you ban hunting there will be a species collapse. Hunters are the best environmentalists we have. Herds need to be culled, because of all the urban encroachment by people, and barbwire fencing by cattlemen and sheep herders. Sorry, but herds just can’t migrate anymore from an area they have eaten to better pastures. SO, THEY DIE! Do you want that? Oh, and when your finished taking your selfies in your “place of refuge” try to remember to haul out your candy wrappers and garbage. OK?

    2. I refer you to Chris’s comments above if you want to have any wildlife at all. If you ban hunting there will be a species collapse. Hunters are the best environmentalists we have. Herds need to be culled, because of all the urban encroachment by people, and barbwire fencing by cattlemen and sheep herders. Sorry, but herds just can’t migrate anymore from an area they have eaten to better pastures. SO, THEY DIE! Do you want that? Oh, and when your finished taking your selfies in your “place of refuge” try to remember to haul out your candy wrappers and garbage. OK?