Wyoming cowboys feed elk forced from their winter migration routes, but some question the wisdom of doing so.
Hundreds of elk lift their heads as John Fandek arrives at the Black Butte elk feed ground on his snowmobile. They watch as he harnesses draft horses Pepper and Emma and hooks them up to the hay sled. The climbing sun glares off the snow in the Upper Green River Valley in western Wyoming, and Fandek squints as he loads hay on the sled. The elk wait at a distance as Fandek drives the horse team out to spread the hay for their daily feed.
The Upper Green drops from 8,000 feet in elevation at Green River Lakes down to 7,346 feet at the tiny town of Cora, Wyoming. Winter snow deepens over fence lines and leaves ranchers to dig out their houses and barn doors. Ungulates — elk, antelope, mule deer, and moose — smartly attempt to leave this valley to winter in the high desert that spreads south. But the Upper Green is a bottleneck now corked by vacation homes, small-acreage hobby ranchettes, the spread-eagle town of Pinedale, oil and gas wells, and the roads and fences that connect them all.
“The available winter range for wildlife in western Wyoming continues to diminish as development continues,” says Fandek, a resident of the Upper Green for more than 50 years. “That’s the conflict.”
For wildlife to access undeveloped areas of land, they must pass through miles of houses, ranchettes, and cattle ranches. Elk are more attracted to haystacks and livestock feed lines than antelope and deer are. The first recorded request for government assistance with elk came from ranchers near Jackson, Wyoming, in 1906. That same year, the U.S. Forest Service fed 40 tons of hay to 1,000 elk starving on “The Bend” of the Green River — just around Gypsum Mountain from what is now the site of Fandek’s home.
“Initially, ranchers threw out a little hay to elk they felt were starving,” Fandek explains, “and it evolved into this whole-scale feeding program operated by [Wyoming] Game and Fish. Of course, some people are very opposed to it because it interferes with the natural way of things.”
In Wyoming, around 10 to 15 percent of the approximately 112,000 elk visit 22 winter feed grounds. Fandek has fed up to 900 head of these elk at the Black Butte feed ground for 38 years.
“I never imagined it would be the long-continuing event it has been,” Fandek says of his elk-feeding job. “I drove horse teams to feed hay to cattle in winter, and feeding cows is about the same as feeding elk.”
For decades Fandek managed the ranch that surrounds Black Butte. He spent frigid days feeding horses and cattle close to ranch headquarters. Then he drove the horse-drawn sled half a mile to the feed ground to buck bales off the haystack and spread the hay across a meadow for the elk. Feeding by four-hoofed horsepower is the most reasonable way to move hay given how deep the snow accumulates.
No longer working at that ranch, Fandek still feeds elk daily from November to April as a contractor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. In the past, Fandek shoveled snow away from the hay sled and stackyard gates, and then loaded as many as 100 90-pound small squares by hand onto the sled. As more hay producers switch to baling hay into large squares, it forced WGFD to purchase certified weed-free hay in 800-pound bales only movable by a tractor.
“The elk look domesticated here,” Fandek says, “because they get into this pattern every day for six months. They accept people. But when I hunt in the fall, they are wild animals. Elk don’t walk up to a human because they think he may have some hay in his pocket.”
Balancing the needs of humans and wildlife with finite land resources remains a puzzle. Cattle ranches provide open space essential for wildlife on the Upper Green, but the rampantly infectious brucellosis carried by bison, elk, and cattle leaves ranchers averse to wildlife mixing with their livestock.
“Ranchers don’t want elk on their land anymore because of government sanctions on the shipping and selling of cattle meant to contain brucellosis,” Fandek says. “Any cattle testing positive for the disease are condemned, and ranchers may lose their entire herds.
“In the early 1980s, the ranch I managed turned up with brucellosis. The policy is the herd must have three consecutive clean tests. The cattle just bolted away when we’d try to gather them into the corrals, because they were so tired of being handled. We finally tested out of quarantine.”
The Upper Green is on the 217-mile Path of the Pronghorn, the longest documented terrestrial migration in the United States. In 2008, the U.S. Forest Service designated it as the first federally recognized wildlife corridor — important not only for pronghorn antelope but also elk. Many landowners on the Upper Green choose to place their land in conservation easements to preserve open space. An easement attached to the land deed in perpetuity prevents houses, roads, and fences from carving up more wildlife habitat in the valley.
With historical elk migration routes altered by human infrastructure, a frequently asked question is whether the elk population should be allowed to shrink to fit today’s available habitat and the WGFD terminate the winter feed grounds.
Jillian McGinnis, a cowboy and former elk feeder in the Pinedale area, says it bothers her that feeding elk disrupts natural selection.
“Every winter, we keep animals — like an old, lame cow elk — alive that would die without supplemental hay,” she says. “We shouldn’t choose what lives and dies. That’s what winter is for.”
On the other hand, she adds, migrating elk will go onto ranches for hay if they have no other food source. “Because of the economic and disease effects on ranches, I do think the elk need to be fed to keep them away from the ranches,” she says. “It’s a necessary evil.”
Back at the Black Butte feed ground, Fandek has no permanent solution either. “What’s the answer?” he asks. “At this point you can’t just cut it off. For generations now, the elk have migrated to winter feed grounds. They don’t know how to go around all the housing and energy developments to reach the Red Desert. If I didn’t feed them here at Black Butte, the elk would go down country to some ranch’s hay pile.”
Fandek gestures to indicate the Upper Green. “Potentially these multimillion-dollar ranches could be acquired for elk habitat and livestock removed,” he says. “But who’s going to buy the ranches and preserve their open space? And, even then, elk can’t stay here because snow depth buries the grass. As Jim Straley, a retired Game and Fish biologist, said, ‘We’ve got the tiger by the tail and can’t let go.’ ”
Fandek turns back to Pepper and Emma and clucks a giddy-up to quicken their pace back to the stackyard to load more hay. Sandhill cranes croak their spring return to the still snowy Upper Green as the elk move stately among the spread hay.
From the February/March 2018 issue.