Road names in Teton County that include “elk” run the gamut: Elk Avenue, Elk Court, Elk Drive, Elk Trace, Elk Camp Road, Elk Refuge Road, Elk Ridge Road, Elk Run Lane and Elk View Terrace. Elk also is the name of a ski run on Snow King Mountain — it’s between Cougar and Grizzly.
There’s also a Wapiti Drive and a Wapiti Road. The true Wapiti Way, king of all elk paths, may be a heavily used hillside trail on the east side of the National Elk Refuge. Bands of migrating elk climb and descend it daily at this time of year.
By now hundreds of elk have migrated from their summer ranges to the valley-bottom refuge fields where they will spend most of the winter. Refuge and Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials permit a limited number of hunters onto the hay fields, in part to keep the herd from consuming winter feed too early in the season.
To avoid the hunters, the herds hide in timber high above the refuge each morning, bedded down in places where the hunting is difficult or the season is over. When hunters have exited the refuge in the evening and all is dark and safe, the elk descend to munch away on the valley floor.
Elk Refuge Biologist Eric Cole estimated about 1,300 elk had migrated to the southern end of the refuge closest to the Town of Jackson by about Nov. 15. The beginning of the migration — the time 1,000-plus elk are at the south end — came three weeks earlier than the 10-year average, Cole wrote in a biological update.
Early snow in Grand Teton National Park likely triggered this, the earliest migration start since 2014.
“Most of the GPS collared elk that have arrived on the Refuge spent the summer in Grand Teton National Park and the western portion of Teton Wilderness,” Cole wrote Nov. 18. “Collared elk that summered in Yellowstone National Park, eastern portions of Teton Wilderness, the Gros Ventre drainage, and private lands west of the Refuge have yet to arrive on NER.”
Since then, observers have seen more bands of elk — some numbering in the hundreds — milling near the federal reserve.
Some 7,000-8,000 elk winter on and around the refuge where they are supported with supplemental feed. They are the core of the 11,000-strong Jackson Elk Herd that winters there and in the Gros Ventre River drainage.
GPS collar data indicates that about 36% of the elk likely to winter on the reserve this year have arrived at their destination, Cole wrote.