Grand Teton National Park’s late-season elk hunt was historically slow

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Rylan Lynam was feeling the pressure, and was itching to get his elk.

In several hunting seasons living in the valley, the Bridger-Teton National Forest firefighter and Moose, Wyoming, resident had always downed a wapiti to feed his family. In the waning days of Grand Teton National Park’s annual elk hunt he was sitting in his Dodge Ram coming to terms with the idea that it might not happen this year.

“The elk are getting to the point where they know where they’re safe,” Lynam said.

Hoof-trodden trails through the crusted snow farther north told the story of what was happening. At night elk were descending to chow down on relic hayfields and shrubbery in sagebrush flats in Grand Teton park. Come daytime they were back up in the Bridger-Teton National Forest foothills, on slopes of Shadow Mountain and points farther south that are off-limits to hunters this time of year.

By 10 a.m., and with just four days to go in the season, Lynam and a few other scattered park hunters were waiting and hoping.

“They could get a crazy idea and run through in the middle of the day,” Lynam said. “They could get that wild hair, and go to the river.

“You never know.”

Grand Teton park’s hunters still have some time to turn in harvest reports, but all signs point toward the 2019 season being the slowest since Dwight. D. Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office, an era when the park’s hunt was in its infancy because the park itself was in its earliest years.

At the time, in 1959 and again in 1960, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department had agreed with the park to forgo a park hunt. Every year since — and every year the hunt has been held — there have been more than 100 elk killed in the national park’s confines, with the harvests topping out near 1,000 animals in the 1980s and 1990s, according to a recent National Elk Refuge planning document.

The number of elk killed in the hunt this year is decidedly lower. With some reports yet to trickle in, it’s sitting in the mid-50s, Grand Teton law enforcement specialist Chris Flesch said.

“This particular year, I think weather played a role in the lack of animal movement,” he said.

It’s a fraction of the harvest that wildlife managers planned for when they sat down last spring to hash out the specifics of the late-season hunt, which is specifically designed to whittle the Jackson Elk Herd down toward its 11,000 animal objective.

In recent decades, as the Jackson Elk Herd has shrunk by design, the park hunt has been scaled back. As recently as the 1990s more than 3,000 permits were being made available to hunters, but tags have since dwindled to 375 as the need to reduce herd size has also fallen. The elimination of bull hunting a few years ago was a step toward staying true to its population-reduction purpose.

Some Jackson Hole residents would like to see the program end entirely because they believe it’s inappropriate for a national park. The hunt, dubbed a “reduction program,” exists because of negotiations between the state of Wyoming and the National Park Service, and a provision authorizing the program is included in the 1950 legislation that created the park.

“Such program shall include the controlled reduction of elk in such park,” the 69-year-old bill says, “by hunters licensed by the state of Wyoming and deputized as rangers by the Secretary of the Interior, when it is found necessary for the purpose of proper management and protection of the elk.”

Waiting for moose

Alex Ghanayem, from Chicago, waits with his cameras pointed at two bull moose lounging in front of the Tetons near Kelly, Wyoming. Ghanayem, an orthopedic surgeon, travels to Jackson often and photographs wildlife.

The same morning Lynam waited for the elk, he was sharing the roads east of Highway 89 with photographer and real estate agent Tim Mayo, a staunch and vocal longtime park hunt critic. The son of a park ranger who spent some of his childhood in Moose, he said the hunt is bad-mouthed within the Park Service behind closed doors.

Mayo also said he appreciated some of the special, more restrictive rules that are in place governing the pursuit of elk within the park. Non-lead ammunition is required, and bear spray is mandatory. Hunters are also prohibited from taking more than one shot at running elk.

“It’s unfortunate that they’ve had to do any of that,” Mayo said. “But, if you look at the progression, as much as I dislike this hunt, it is going in the right direction.”

Up the road from Mayo and Lynam toward Ditch Creek, Chicago visitor and orthopedic surgeon Alex Ghanayem spent his morning behind a telescopic camera lens waiting out bedded bull moose backdropped by the Tetons’ Cathedral Group.

“I’m just waiting for these guys to stand,” Ghanayem said.

A common knock on the park hunt is that it’s a “road hunt.” That perception is the source of displeasure for Ghanayem, who used the same term as Mayo to describe it: “turkey shoot.”

“If they do it for conservation — control of the population — there are better ways to do it,” Ghanayem said.

While park hunters can and do luck into elk not far from roads, it’s certainly not the norm, Game and Fish spokesman Mark Gocke said.

“People have that impression, when you drive Antelope Flats and see people parked with their truck running, that they see elk and they jump out and they shoot them,” Gocke said. “But I hate to characterize the hunt like that.”

“It’s a migration hunt,” he said. “When animals are moving, you can kill an elk probably relatively less distance away from your vehicle than you might be able to on a lot of other hunts.”

There are quasi-backcountry swaths of the open hunt area, like on Blacktail Butte and along the eastern boundary, that hunters return to time and time again with luck, he said. Last hunting season a Game and Fish survey estimated that about 50% of the 475 active hunters were successful, and they spent an average of 12 days each to get their elk. Once this season’s surveys and numbers are tallied, both hunter activity and success figure to fall off significantly for 2019.

Plenty of park elk hunters do value its accessibility.

Dating back to the 1970s, Casper resident Larry Gall ventured to Jackson Hole each fall to try to tag an elk in places like Spread Creek and near the Camp Creek feedground. But now the 75-year-old is a lot less mobile and he focuses his energy on Grand Teton National Park.

“I like the park for hunting because it’s pretty accessible for me,” Gall said. “Of course, I can’t go up Blacktail Butte.”

The retired drilling rig welder explained that he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He moseyed into a nearby pickup and showed off his oxygen machine.

“Being a welder, you know, this is what happens to you,” Gall said. “This keeps me breathing.”

A calf elk was splayed out in the bed of the pickup that belonged to Gall’s buddy, who didn’t wish to be named. Gall himself had struck out in seven straight days of rising before dawn at the Elk Country Inn and spending the day hunting. By Thursday they were ready to call it quits after a pretty slow week.

“It won’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last time not getting an elk,” Gall said.

Perhaps the largest threat to Grand Teton’s elk hunt is litigation.

Mayo and another wildlife advocate in the valley, Kent Nelson, sued in a federal district court in 2014, arguing that annual renewal of the hunt was not subject to adequate review under the National Environmental Policy Act. The judge didn’t agree, nor did the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

Park biologists and Game and Fish will continue to meet every spring to determine if the hunt is needed to “insure the permanent conservation of the elk” — language found in Grand Teton’s enabling legislation. The review and a subsequent joint recommendation takes into account the population and distribution of the Jackson Herd, the number of bulls per 100 cows, and other biological factors.

Game and Fish wildlife biologist Aly Courtemanch, who is a part of those conversations, doesn’t see the recommendation resulting in no hunting anytime soon.

“The elk reduction program contributes about 25 to 30 percent of the entire cow calf harvest in the Jackson Elk Herd,” Courtemanch said. “It plays a really big role in determining the trajectory of the herd.”

Importantly, she said, the park hunt is also a “tool” to go after elk that summer on Jackson Hole’s private lands, which are thriving. Since the early days of the park hunt the most urban, least migratory portion of the Jackson Herd has grown from a few hundred animals to thousands. Meanwhile, long-distance migrants that travel all the way to the Teton Wilderness and beyond during summers are undergoing a long-term decline. The shifting dynamic is hard to control and generally viewed as undesirable.

This year it was a lack of winter weather that explained why hunts on the park and National Elk Refuge were so uncharacteristically quiet. Courtemanch expects the population to grow as a result, because cows that would usually be in freezers will instead be out on the landscape breeding.

Lynam, the elk-less hunter, wasn’t jaded about his lack of fortune. He intended to get out every day, until the season ran out.

“It’s hunting, even if it’s the park hunt,” he said. “You’ve got to take what Mother Nature and the weather gives you.”

Minutes later, a Backcountry Safaris van rolled by where he was pulled over near the base of Blacktail Butte. Several men quickly streamed out of the vehicle.

“Well,” Lynam said, “there are a lot of moose out.”

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