John Fandek, elk feeder, at the Black Butte Feedground on Feb. 28, 2021. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

CORA – There’s a simple formula to the day’s start for John Fandek, the longest-serving feeder on Wyoming Game and Fish’s 22 winter elk feedgrounds.

“If it’s already below zero,” he says, “I let the sun come up first.”

Beyond that, Fandek, 77, has little influence over the schedule as he sets off to feed 949 elk at the Wyoming Game and Fish Black Butte Feedground above Cora.

He drives a couple of miles to his snowmobile and then rides it over 3 miles of rolling, snow-covered prairie to a fenced hay stack yard and horse corrals. In an unchanging routine, he gathers draft horses Lill and Pepper, hitches them to their trough and doles out their morning hay.

Forty-two years behind the teams has honed Fandek’s methods. From the way he harnesses his horses to the knots he ties to secure used bailing twine, he follows routine at this 7,700-foot high, 525-acre refuge.

Every day. All winter. Alone.

“First thing you do is catch the horses,” Fandek says. “And then the most important part of the whole job shoveling the [horse] manure.”

Fandek loads a small bale that weighs about 80 pounds. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Fandek learned how to handle the harness lines from Mickey Buyer on the O Bar Y Ranch adjacent to the feedground. Fandek fed elk at Black Butte while working for Buyer and later while at the Carney Ranch, just upriver, all the while raising a family with his wife, Lucy. Black Butte feeding began in 1948, Ron Dean writes in “Feeding Big Game in Western Wyoming.” From the beginning through 2005, feeders doled out an average of 259 tons of hay to 410 elk for 146 days a winter.

Buyer, “he was an old rancher, came up here out of Colorado,” Fandek says. “He had very little machinery. He was a horseman.”

Black Butte has about 600 tons of hay stored this winter. Each elk eats about 10 pounds a day. “They’re very sensitive to the weather,” Fandek says. “Cold weather, they eat more. Essentially you feed them what they eat.”

Fandek drives his sleigh out of the fenced hay stack-yard. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

On an easy day, Fandek can work from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. “I remember years I’d spend practically all day there, you know, just shoveling the alleys and shoveling the gates to get in and out. I spent hours before I ever loaded a bale of hay.

“This particular feedground starts sooner [in the winter] and normally runs later than, I believe, any of the rest of them,” he says. “So if you’d like to feed elk, this is the place to be.

“I can’t imagine a situation where we could stop feeding in most of these locations,” he says. “If you had a bad winter, they’d die like flies.”

Would Chronic Wasting Disease have a similar result? Fandek doesn’t know what might happen with an infection at Black Butte. “I can’t imagine what they would do,” he says of Game and Fish.

Some of the 949 elk at the Black Butte Feedground nibble at the hay on the sleigh. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Fandek keeps a hand on the lines to the Game and Fish team as he cuts the twine off the bales, flakes off slabs and kicks them from the slow-moving sleigh to the ground.

“If I feed grass hay first they’ll follow me around because they know alfalfa is coming next,” he says. He’s a good judge of elk numbers, but once a winter an agency team comes out for an official census.

“Our classifiers – elk counters — they always play a little game,” he says “Well, how many you think are here?” they ask him. “And they want a precise number,” he says. “So [one year I said] 842, or whatever.

“We had a pretty good count and came up short. I said, ‘Well, listen, I can tell by looking all the bulls are not here today.’

“They kind of laughed, were ready to leave. Well, here comes the bulls stringing off the hill. And I was one — one — digit off.

“There’s always a backup amount of hay,” Fandek says of his stockpile. “I’ve never even come close to running out of hay for years and years.

“The official count [this year of] 918 was in early February or the end of January,” he says. “But more have come in. I’m calling it 949, 950.”

A slab of hay hits the deck of John Fandek’s elk feeding sleigh as he handles the lines to Lill and Pepper. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

“Over the years there have been a number of incidents,” Fandek says of runaways, wrecks and injuries.

In one, Pepper “just bolted and slammed me into the ground and trampled over the top of me,” he says. “Hit my leg, hit my shoulder, gashed the back of my head and knocked me cold.”

Another year he broke his leg. “Horse kicked me.”

Once the doubletree hitch broke and “turned the horses loose,” he says. “They totally smashed the wagon to pieces, shredded the harnesses.”

Pepper and Lill. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

In addition to Pepper and Lill, Game and Fish has another draft horse at the feedground and Fandek owns one of his own to complete a backup team.

“I look forward to doing it,” he says of his work, “because I enjoy the animals. There’s always something interesting going along. I like working the horses, it’s just a unique thing to do.”

Fandek, a hunter, makes friends and no longer likes to hunt bulls. “These bigger bulls, in particular, I like to see them come back year after year,” he says. “One year they don’t come back. That’s their fate, I guess.”

Everything has its season.

“’Bout the first of May you start to think maybe you’d like to do something else, maybe you’d like to go fishing,” Fandek says. “But once I start, get into the routine, I never think much about it. It’s my day.”

Read more about Wyoming’s 22 feedgrounds and Chronic Wasting Disease:

CWD discovery to trigger discussion of Jackson Elk Herd size

Game and Fish plans for deadly disease at elk feedgrounds

Game and Fish eyes backups should courts shut elk feedgrounds

Bill would strip Game and Fish’s authority to close elk feedgrounds

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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13 Comments

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  1. Great story! Thanks so much for writing same. As the UW motto says: The world needs more cowboys (Like John)

  2. Artificial feeding of elk in those areas, another terrible idea in Wyoming. Sounds about like trying to artificially keep the useless Wyoming coal plants going. Both are just big wastes of Wyoming limited revenue.

  3. This article brings to mind the recent decision to gradually reduce the amount of elk feeding in Jackson by 50%. I hope you can do a follow-up article about that issue. I don’t understand the rationale. Thanks for great reporting!

  4. Thank you so much for spending the day with my DAD and writing this article. I hadn’t realized he has set a record! That is what you call dedication! This is who my dad is, the reason he is here the mountains the wildlife…Wyoming! He new as a boy this is where he wanted to be and didn’t take him long to get here with my Mom who has always been right there with him, (not always a fun adventure she might say lol) Thank you for this chance to express my gratitude for my Parents, for good Health and for Wyoming our Home

    1. Very nice response to your parents. It’s taken a lot of perseverance and fortitude to do this many years. Congratulation to him and your mom.

  5. Years ago, I worked on the Bar Cross Ranch for John Barlow, as a cowboy and fencer, and knew John Fandek and Mickey Buyer. In the summers I was a USFS range foreman and range rider, so I knew how many miles of tall fence it took to funnel those elk to the feedgrounds and keep them off their former, natural winter range.

    With due respect and thanks to the elk feeders like John, given the present problems with disease and all, I think the elk feeding program should be phased out, and ranchers compensated for having elk on the land they took over.

  6. Thanks to Wyoming F&W for subsidizing John’s work.
    I have to wonder what the elk herd was like at Black Butte prior to the 1995 wolf release into Yellowstone. 950 elk is a lot of elk but what would it be now without wolf predation?
    A great story about a man who is lucky enough to have a job he loves so much, he doesn’t know he is working except for an occasional broken leg or being tromped.

  7. This is the Great Old Wyoming. The reason we’re here.

    PS. John is a terrific fence builder / mender in the off season. Oh, and a great story teller.

    Only one thing you missed, Angus: John’s faithful border collie Molly. I guess the elk don’t like her.

  8. I went to school with their daughter. The Fandek’s are a wonderful, wonderful family. God bless him for doing what he does. An Amazing man!!!! I grew up in Pinedale.

  9. Fantastic story Angus, and the images were equally as great. This was like the reporting of old. What a treat to see.

    1. John Fandek and his wife, Lucy, are two of the most beloved people in my life. Thank you for sharing John’s life on the feeding grounds. If you should have the opportunity to share many of his wildlife stories, please do. I listen to him in awe, along with humor, delight, and deep respect.