JACKSON— With drought sapping natural forage in Grand Teton National Park, more bison are moving to the National Elk Refuge earlier this year, giving hunters more targets for this week’s opening of the refuge’s bison hunt.
About 700 of the animals moved from the park to the refuge between July 28 and Aug. 3, about three-quarters of the Jackson Hole herd, said refuge biologist Eric Cole.
The bison normally move off the park in mid-August but in limited numbers, Cole said.
“Like most things, there are costs and benefits,” he said. “The cost is the bison are consuming forage that we are trying to conserve for the critical winter months. On the positive side, it will make the bison more vulnerable to harvest once the season opens on Wednesday.”
More bison will roam the 100-year-old refuge on this year’s hunting opening day than on any other opener in history, Cole estimated.
“In recent years, we’ve harvested as many as 20 animals on the first day, and the bison have left after that first day,” Cole tells the Jackson Hole Daily (bit.ly/PhGkEi). “But it’s difficult to predict if that will happen again with higher numbers on the refuge.”
No bison hunting is allowed in Grand Teton National Park, but an aggressive, on-again, off-again season runs from Wednesday to Jan. 6 on the refuge and on surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest lands.
Wildlife managers allow hunting in hopes of cutting the bison herd close to its population goal of 500. From the winter of 2010-11 to the winter of 2011-12, the Jackson Hole herd decreased by about 8 percent, from 910 to 840.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which manages the hunt, issued 410 bison permits this year, said spokesman Mark Gocke. Of those, 300 licenses are for cows or calves and another 110 are “either-sex” tags that allow hunters to take bulls.
Last year, 227 hunters took 101 bulls, 86 cows and seven calves — a hunting success rate of 85 percent.
“We’re slowly bringing (the population) down, but they bring about 15 percent of the population in new calves each year,” Gocke said. “We’re just hopeful we can get some animals harvested. Cows in particular.”