Photo Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Have you ever wondered what the American plains looked like before large populations eradicated most of the wildlife? We’re all familiar with the lyrics from “Home on the Range,” which say, in part, “Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam; where the deer and the antelope play.” Sadly, that image of the west is hard to come by in this day and age, but a visit to Wyoming's National Elk Refuge offers a unique glimpse into the past. For animal lovers, it's truly a must-see.

History of the National Elk Refuge

Originally believed to have approximately 25,000 members in the herd, the elk would migrate from the Jackson Hole area down to southern Yellowstone and back every year. As the city of Jackson began expanding near the end of the nineteenth century, the herd’s route was essentially blocked and the population started to shrink drastically. Before the situation got any worse, local citizens decided to take action, establishing the Elk Refuge in 1912.

Designed to protect the largest elk herd on the planet; approximately 23,000 acres were reserved for the purpose. That acreage is located between Jackson to the northeast, Grand Teton National Park to the north and Bridger-Teton National Forest to the east. In addition to being home to about 7500 elk today, the refuge is home to approximately 1,000 bison and a decent number of bighorn sheep.

Photo Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie

What the Refuge Does

In addition to providing a safe haven for the elk, the National Elk Refuge helps the herd survive the very punishing winters that occur in this part of Wyoming. Staff at the refuge feed the herd and a culling program is also in place. The culling program is a lottery-controlled hunting program designed to keep the population numbers in check where hunters vie for coveted licenses to hunt within the refuge.

Planning Your Visit

If you’re strictly interested in catching a glimpse of the elk herd, a drive along the main road - Refuge Road - should afford you a decent view. Hiking opportunities are extremely limited as most people don’t ever get the chance to do that sort of exploring. If you’d like to get a closer look at this majestic herd, a wintertime visit is in order. Between December and April, sleigh rides are offered within the refuge. It’s a truly memorable experience if you're in the Jackson area.