Hunt begins as elk refuge poised for big changes
Animals’ winter range provides an opportunity for sportsmen with disabilities.
Monte Haas, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, meets with National Elk Refuge officer Dan Huckel during a refuge hunt this week. NEWS&GUIDE PHOTO / CORY HATCHView our entire photo gallery >>
By Cory Hatch
November 1, 2006
It’s a warm, sunny, fall afternoon on the National Elk Refuge and, leaning up against refuge officer Dan Huckel’s truck, hunter Monte Haas is trembling.
He’s not shaking from the cold; his multiple sclerosis is acting up.
“My doctors tell me to come up to the high elevation and the cooler climate,” says Haas, an Evansville resident who has hunted on the refuge for 24 years. “I tell you one thing, the elk refuge is good at dealing with the handicapped. The access is fantastic.”
Indeed, the two drive-up handicapped spots put other hunters with disabilities right in the path of hundreds of migrating elk. But today, instead of using one of the spots, Haas brought his horse.
For hundreds of sportsmen like Haas, disabled or not, hunting on the nearly 25,000-acre elk refuge is a tradition that extends back decades. This year, more than 5,000 elk will migrate down from their summer range to the hayfields as winter rolls into Jackson. Alongside those elk, about 1,100 bison, several wolf packs, coyotes, ravens and thousands of tourists will jockey for alfalfa pellets, gut piles and photos.
The upcoming winter could prove important for managing animals on the refuge. Worried that crowded conditions could exacerbate diseases like brucellosis and chronic wasting disease, officials plan to unveil a new management plan that will lower elk and bison numbers and ratchet down feeding over several years.
But for this fall, the hunt continues as always.
“It’s kind of a community out here,” says Huckel, who has worked on the refuge for the past two years. “I have a lot of hunters tell me that this [hunting at the refuge] is a privilege.”
Huckel says he gets to know many hunters personally, and sometimes his lack of seniority is a problem. “They [hunters] say, ‘Who are you? I’ve been out here 40 years.”
One of Huckel’s regulars is Richard Carter, who has killed elk on the refuge since 1967. Carter applied for access to the handicapped spots this year after suffering from back and ankle injuries.
“I never was in that situation,” says Carter, “But now I can’t walk very far. I never really thought about it before this year. I knew that they took care of the handicapped people and I never thought that I would be in that situation.”
“I think it’s great, because it does give them an opportunity to kill an elk,” Carter continues. “You’re able to go out there and sit in your truck if you’re in a wheelchair. It puts the handicapped person in a situation where he can kill an elk so that they don’t feel like they’re slighted.”
Further, Carter says that officers like Huckel keep watch on hunters with disabilities.
“They know who’s out there and they keep an eye out,” he said. “They’ll come and help you if needed. They are excellent people out there.”
At 6:30 a.m. on a cold, clear Saturday, Carter and Patty Keiser, Carter’s helper, leave the west parking lot in Carter’s pickup and drive about 300 yards to a handicapped sign like you see at the supermarket. From there, it’s a wide-open view to one of the key elk migration corridors.
“I like hunting out here,” says Carter. “Some people think that it’s an easy hunt, but it’s not. If the elk aren’t moving, it’s a tough hunt.”
Keiser works with Carter at Jackson Hole Airport and also hunts on the refuge with her husband.
“I said if you want someone to go out and help you, I said I’d help out,” she says. “I told Dan [Huckel] the other day, ‘You might as well put me on the payroll.’”
As the morning wears on, the sun peeks over the Gros Ventre Range and casts a pink light on the top of the Tetons. The view is perfect, except not an elk appears through the spotting scope.
According to Carter, sometimes 700 to 800 elk come over the ridge and down into the flats near his parking space.
“Everyone is pretty good about not shooting each other,” he says. Every once in a while “a herd will come down and it’s like a war.”
After a while, the conversation turns to food and Carter talks about his recipe for elk and antelope jerky. “That’s what I give the kids for Christmas,” he says. “My brother-in-law, he screams if he doesn’t get his jerky.”
Keiser says she donates a lot of her meat to senior citizens. Carter says he gives his daughter some of the meat he brings home.
“It’s not the thought of killing something,” Carter says. “It’s about putting something on the table to eat.”
Like many hunters, Carter has strong opinions about how the refuge is managed. Wolves and bears, he says, should live in the area, but their numbers should be controlled.
“I think it’s a good thing to stop the brucellosis, but it’s a bad thing to stop the feed grounds,” says Carter. “These elk will starve to death.”
Keiser weighs in, saying buffalo have become a problem.
“They need to keep the buffalo off it,” she says. “But if they’re going to have buffalo here, it’d be nice to kill a few.”
Keiser may get her wish with the new management plan, refuge manager Barry Reiswig says. “We’re going to have 1,100 of them this winter, and we expect most of them to be here,” he says. “The more bison you have, the bigger the feeding program has to be. We’re getting to the point now where one of our feed rigs is dedicated to feeding just bison.”
A lawsuit filed by the Fund for Animals shut down the bison hunt in the late 1990s, and Reiswig hopes the refuge can overturn that decision. “We would resume bison hunting on the refuge,” he said. “That’s one of the elements of the plan.”
Out on the refuge with Carter and Keiser, the morning passes quietly, without any sign of an elk. But neither seems to mind.
“Even if I don’t kill anything, I enjoy coming out here,” says Carter. “This is quiet time.”