National Elk Refuge: 10 Things (2024) You Ought to Know

In an effort to maintain and restore a sliver of the American West, the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming, was created.

The original purpose of the refuge was to protect elk, but it has turned into something much more than that.

In this article, we’re going to take a journey through the refuge’s history, how it operates, what it offers visitors and oh-so-much more.

If you’re traveling through Wyoming, visiting the National Elk Refuge shouldn’t be missed.

It’s an incredible opportunity to see stunning natural scenery and wildlife and learn about the importance of current conservation efforts.

So, let’s head to Wyoming and take a closer look.

1. What is the National Elk Refuge?

The National Elk Refuge is a wildlife sanctuary in Jackson, Wyoming that was established in 1912.

Long before Westerners arrived in America, the region was home to herds and herds of elk.

Today, the animal is under constant threat, so the sanctuary was created to protect one of the country’s largest herds of elk.

Over time, the refuge broadened its conservation boundaries.

Researchers and conservationists now also focus on flora and other wildlife species, such as bison, wolves, swans, bighorn sheep, and cutthroat trout.

Unlike national parks and national forests, there is far less public access, which allows the local habitat to function with minimal disturbances.

Because of this, the refuge is one of the top places to capture images of the American West, spot wildlife, hunt, and imagine what life would have been like in the region before western expansion.

To better understand how and why the refuge first got started, let’s go over its fascinating history.

2. What is the History of the National Elk Refuge?

The National Elk Refuge has been protecting wildlife for over a hundred years.

So, how did it get started?

When a man named Stephen Nelson Leek began work as a hunting guide, he noticed something alarming: dead elk.

One of his clients gave him a camera, and Leek photographed the disproportionately large death count of elk due to a series of harsh winters and sent the photos to newspapers and magazines.

He also took matters into his own hands and gave lectures, warning the public that the region’s elk were under threat and could disappear.

Thanks to Leek’s effort, the problem was recognized, and the government and conservationists took action.

At the beginning of 1911, Wyoming received financial support to preserve the elk in Jackson Hole.

Then, in August of 1912, Congress donated more than 2,500 acres of public and purchased land and $45,000 to establish the National Elk Refuge.

Another 1,760 acres of private land were added to the refuge in 1925, but it wasn’t until 1935 that the refuge truly became what it is today.

During that year, Congress allocated 6 million dollars (worth about 80 million today) to acquire land for wildlife across the United States, which resulted in the National Elk Refuge receiving more than 14,000 acres of land.

As the decades rolled on and the refuge became more established, conservationists were able to include more animals and native plants in their protective efforts.

3. How Big is the National Elk Refuge?

The National Elk Refuge consists of more than 24,700 acres of land that’s home to a range of animals and plants that live in wetlands, grasslands, and forests.

It’s situated in an important location that borders the Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Depending on the season, elk and other animals will roam between the three protected areas to seek shelter and food.

Of the nearly 25,000 acres, a vast majority of the space is off-limits to the public.

Certain portions of the refuge periodically become accessible for hunters, but ultimately, the land is sectioned off so that nature can thrive without human activity impacting the environment.

As long as the refuge continues to play a crucial part in the conservation of land and wildlife, there’s little chance its acreage will be reduced.

4. Can You Hunt in the National Elk Refuge?

Hunting in the National Elk Refuge is allowed, but only during certain parts of the year.

Hunters have to apply for permission slips, and they’re only allowed to apply to one of the available hunting periods throughout the year.

The hunting season runs from August to December, and each specific hunting period is 2 to 3 days.

Only a handful of species can be hunted, including elk, bison, white-tailed deer, and pronghorn.

Hunting any other type of animal could result in serious repercussions.

Hunters also have to follow the rules and regulations when hunting in the refuge, such as hunting during select hours, using specific types of decoys, and avoiding the intentional herding or harassment of animals.

Due to the threat of bear attacks, hunters are encouraged to bring bear spray and be on high alert in exposed areas.

It may seem strange that a refuge dedicated to the preservation of elk would allow hunting on the land.

However, hunting is an important activity that helps balance the population size of the species.

When the population size gets too large, there’s greater competition for resources, and the overall health of the ecosystem begins to suffer.

5. Are There Other Animals Besides Elk on the National Elk Refuge?

The National Elk Refuge is home to much more than just elk, and today, there are several programs to help preserve other species.

Each animal plays an important part in maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

If the population size of a major animal like the elk begins to rapidly increase or decline, it threatens all other life in the area.

Here’s a list of the larger animals found in the National Elk Refuge:




bulletBighorn Sheep


Here’s a list of the smaller animals found in the National Elk Refuge:





Here’s a list of birds found in the National Elk Refuge:

bulletBald Eagles





bullet*There are over 175 species of birds that fly through the area

When you visit the National Elk Refuge, there will be ample opportunities to see all kinds of animals, both big and small.

If you’re interested in seeing elk, the best time to visit is in the winter when the herd comes down to the refuge to get away from the cold, snowy mountains.

6. What is the Climate of the National Elk Refuge?

The refuge is located at a lower elevation compared to the rest of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, giving it a much milder climate.

The more agreeable weather is what draws so many animals to the refuge during the winter.

However, winters in Wyoming can be harsh no matter where the animals go, requiring them to sometimes withstand brutal conditions.

Between November and March, the refuge is snow-covered, although there are frequent sunny yet chilly days.

Jackson sees around 200 sunny days per year on average.

As the temperature begins to warm up, some of the animals make their way out of the refuge and up the mountains.

7. What Conservation Efforts are Made at the National Elk Refuge?

The refuge’s number one goal is to conserve the local nature, allowing the flora and fauna to thrive.

After a hundred years of operating, there are now several programs that go beyond just caring for elk.

Here are some of the current conservation programs at the National Elk Refuge:

bulletMonitoring the Jackson Elk Herd

A top priority of the refuge has been to manage the Jackson elk herd.

It’s one of the largest herds in North America, believed to be at about 11,000.

The herd was once made up of more than 25,000 elk between 1887 and 1911.

Thousands of elk died at the end of the 19th century due to harsh winter conditions.

But now, thanks to the program, the herd’s numbers have remained stable.

bulletSupplemental Feeding for Bison and Elk

When the freezing temperatures of the winter roll in, the deep snow and ice make it difficult and sometimes impossible for elk and bison to graze.

To ensure that both species have access to food, the refuge provides supplemental feed.

Elk and bison require more feed during harsher winters and sometimes none at all during favorable winters.

bulletChronic Wasting Disease Response Strategy

In 2020,  it was determined that the elk in Grand Teton National Park, which is connected to the refuge, had tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

CWD is a fatal illness related to mad cow disease, and the National Elk Refuge now has a program that monitors and tests individual elk displaying symptoms.

bulletHabitat Management

A crucial responsibility of the refuge is managing the habitat of the elk and bison.

That includes monitoring local flora and fauna and ensuring population sizes are healthy.

Part of the habitat management efforts also includes an irrigation program in the spring and summer that provides high-quality forage.

bulletWeed Mapping

Weeds are unwanted, problematic plants that take up crucial resources from the desired plants of an area.

Weed mapping helps the refuge identify and remove weeds to ensure crops that are the food source for animals can thrive.

Removing unwanted plants also helps loosen the soil, making it easier for desired plants to grow.

8. When is the Best Time to Visit the National Elk Refuge?

The National Elk Refuge is a stunning place to visit year-round.

Figuring out when to visit comes down to what kind of experience you want to have.

If you want to see thousands of elks, the best time to visit the National Elk Refuge is in the winter.

The refuge offers horse-drawn sleigh rides to areas where you can watch the elk feed.

As the winter melts away in the spring, the male elk’s antlers begin to grow, and the females give birth to calves.

The harshness of that year’s winter will determine how much of the refuge is accessible to the public.

The summer months will give you the most access to the park.

You will be able to drive through the area or hike on any of the open trails.

The male elk’s antlers will be fully grown by this time, giving them a remarkably stunning appearance.

For a truly unique elk-viewing experience, plan your trip for the breeding season in the fall.

During this time, male elk challenge each other for mates.

As you explore the beautiful terrain, the sound of clashing antlers can be heard in the background.

If you decide to visit in the winter, just be prepared for freezing temperatures, so pack accordingly.

9. Are There Hiking Trails?

The National Elk Refuge only has four hiking trails to avoid disturbing the animals.

However, the trails were created to give people the best views of the wildlife and gorgeous landscape.

Here are the available trails in the refuge:

bulletCrystal Butte National Forest Access Trail (Hard):56 Miles

bulletCurtis Canyon National Forest Access Trail (Hard):15 Miles

bulletDry Hallow Trail (Moderate):99 Miles

bulletMulti-Use Pathway (Moderate):93 Miles

The Multi-Use Pathway is the refuge’s paved pathway that cuts through grassland and wetland habitats and connects with other trails in the Grand Teton National Park.

It’s an excellent walking, biking, or running trail that’s wheelchair friendly.

Keep in mind that pets are not allowed on any of the trails.

Adhering to all safety and regulation signs is crucial to protect yourself and the flora and fauna within the refuge.

10. What Are the Best Activities?

When you visit the National Elk Refuge, there are several great activities to enjoy the great outdoors and learn about the conservation programs.

Here are the best things to do in the National Elk Refuge:

bulletWildlife Watching

Wildlife watching is the refuge’s main activity.

Throughout the year, the area is full of animals of all sizes, including elk, bison, bald eagles, beavers, and more.

It’s one of the few sites left in the United States where you can see what the wilderness looked like before Western expansion.


The National Elk Refuge is a photographer’s dream.

Whether you use a smartphone or a professional camera, taking a bad photo is nearly impossible.

You’ll have the chance to photograph herds of elk and other animals in front of inspiring mountains and vibrant foliage.

Just make sure to stay in the designated areas while taking pictures and to give wildlife plenty of space.


During the warmer months of the year, biking and hiking are two of the best things to do in the National Elk Refuge.

Bikers and walkers are allowed on the main pathway, but the other four trails are only for hikers.


During select parts of the year, hunting and fishing are permitted in the National Elk Forest.

A hunting permit and fishing license are required to participate in these activities.

Failing to obtain these documents or hunting/fishing outside of the permitted period could lead to legal punishments.

bulletEducational Programs

When you first arrive, stopping by the visitor center is a great way to get more information about the refuge, the animals that roam the land, and conservation efforts to protect wildlife.

Free booklets are available at the visitor center.

Final Thoughts

The National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming, is working to maintain the natural beauty that captured the attention of early settlers.

Elk are an important part of the area’s ecosystem, and without the refuge, the local species were at risk of disappearing.

Thanks to conservationists and the government’s donations of land and money, the animals and ecosystem can function at optimum levels.

All nature lovers or anyone passing through the area should put the refuge high on their places to visit list.

Experiencing such a gorgeous piece of wilderness far away from cars and buildings won’t be something you soon forget.

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


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