Each autumn as the aspen grove erupt into a spectacle of color and the first snows dust the mountains, the region’s elk populations begin their seasonal migrations from the alpine high country to lower elevations. It is a natural ritual forged out of survival. After months spent grazing on rich summer foliage, elk must move to milder winter habitats less susceptible to the elements and where winter feed and water will be more accessible, or, risk the poor outlook of surviving the long winter and heavy snows in the mountains.
This passage, nature’s final curtain call before the onset of winter, brings to life the area’s wildernesses. The first migrations coincide with the peak rut, during which bull elk begin to separate and gather cows. Bulls will dutifully defend their harems, seldom sleeping or eating for weeks. A bull may lose as much as 200 pounds, or 20 percent of its weight, fending off challengers. These herds will then begin their long and generally arduous journeys to winter habitat.
The Pioneer Footprint
Elk migrations across the Greater Yellowstone region were first observed by fur trappers, who arrived in the Jackson Hole valley in the 1820s – although Native American tribes had discovered the region’s rich ecological diversity long before. Blackfoot and Shoshone Indians would make camp in the area following the spring thaw, but, like the elk they hunted, the harsh winters limited their stays to the warm summer months. After which, the tribes would migrate to milder climates.
Drawn by the bounty of wildlife, the first trappers established Jackson Hole as a crossroads of at least six major trade routes. These early explorers hosted annual rendezvouses, and word soon began to spread about the area’s rugged beauty and natural fertility, proliferated in East Coast newspapers. In the mid-1880s, the first permanent settlers began to arrive, and within a decade the valley was dotted with the first cabins and settlements, several of which survive today.