In Wyoming, isolated elk tenders stay close to their work

Elk, which are fed during winter in northwestern Wyoming, fared better as a population but also proved difficult to find. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department photo)

JACKSON, Wyo. — It’s not too big of a deal for a Gros Ventre elk feeder to spend a night “out.”

In other words, be stranded — and with no more than an ever-present colleague and elk for company and only dreams of a warm bed and meal. The cause can be a broken snowmobile or bad weather, or, as was the case earlier this winter for veteran Gros Ventre feeder Jay Hoggan, both.

The mishap struck while on a routine 8-mile trip away from the Patrol Cabin Feedground, his winter home, to feed the elk at Fish Creek. The first sign that the journey was headed in an unpleasant direction was when snowdrifts started shooting up over the front of his sled. Then, around 2 p.m., after the elk had their hay, a faulty clutch put the kibosh on a gas-propelled return trip down valley to Patrol Cabin. The snow was too deep and weather too risky for a horseback ride home, and so an old bully shed became Hoggan’s home for the night.

“I called that shot, which was good,” Hoggan said. “It was the right thing to do.”

An errant ax, some wooden poles lying around and a barrel enabled a fire, which was critical because his clothes were “wringing wet.”

“The wind was blowing so hard we couldn’t stay out by the fire,” Hoggan said of himself and his assistant at the time, Josh Drewes, “so we’d get warmed up and we’d get in that bully shed and stay until we get too cold and get back out.”

So it went, at least for Hoggan, through the night. Drewes was a “little hobo” who had no problem sleeping through the cold.

“He knew how to get in that fetal position,” Hoggan said. “In fact, I had to wake him up. He’d done that before.”

Such is life for the elk feeders who tend the three remote Wyoming Game and Fish Department feedgrounds along the snowed-in Gros Ventre Road. They’re 13-1/2 miles past the plowed end of the road, which itself is an hour from town.

There’s a bit less hardship and more monotony, of course, in the day to day. The morning of Feb. 17, Hoggan and his new help, Lucas Bielby, were prepping for their daily elk feeding session after having emerged from a toasty cabin following a hearty breakfast.

Hoisting himself to the top of a 15-foot-high haystack, Bielby warmed up fast and stripped off his coat. It was clear and, for now, still very cold. One by one the Rigby, Idaho, resident lofted down the approximately 100-pound bales to Hoggan, who neatly stacked them on the back of a flatbed sleigh. Up front were two powerful-looking draft horses, Robin and Casino.

By the time the task was completed, more than a ton of the rectangular bales bogged down the sleigh. But with a “ged-oop” command and a jump, the team easily pulled away.

“This is the funnest part of the day for me,” Hoggan said. “Watching my team scratch out of the yard.”

In the process of feeding the elk, the slow-moving sleigh deposited chunks of hay Bielby nudged off the trailer. Hoggan, who drove Robin and Casino, selected long, straight feed lines that cut through fresh snow. Groups of the approximately 1,000 elk gathered at Patrol Cabin Feedground follow the team, eager to get a portion of the breakfast line to themselves.

Hoggan has a clear way with the draft horses, and breaking in and turning around young colts and mares is a passion. After they’ve spent three or four years in the Gros Ventre, once the animals are whipped into shape, he’ll swap in a new, unproven team.

“If you didn’t like the horse deal, it would be pretty tough,” he said. “That’s my enjoyment — these guys.”

Life up the Gros Ventre in wintertime is isolated.

After the road closes to wheeled vehicles in December, it’s only snowmobile traffic, and even that can be scant and generally limited to a few winter-keepers, landowners and commercially guided groups. Hoggan’s relatives come up on occasion to help out and visit. A satellite phone provides regular contact with his young family, which includes a 10-year-old and 17-year-old, who stay back in Hamer, Idaho.

Two of Hoggan’s farm dogs, Ann and Cowgirl, and Bielby’s puppy, Belle, make the winter journey to the Gros Ventre. They join not as working dogs, but as companions.

In all, Game and Fish has 16 contracts for its 21 feedgrounds. At the more accessible elk feeding sites the contracts tend to go to ranchers and other people who live nearby and can afford to peel away and commit a few hours of the day to feeding elk.

Historically, the jobs were typically occupied by actual Game and Fish employees, often younger folks looking for an in into Wyoming wildlife management. Among Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott’s first agency jobs, for instance, was a winter spent feeding elk at the Jewett Feedground.

“It’s not a lucrative position. It never has been,” Talbott said. “And back in day, when I was doing it, it was really difficult work.”

Up the Gros Ventre, the duties haven’t changed much.

Hoggan, who has held the contract for 11 winters, said that an increase in wolves in the Gros Ventre has made his workdays easier. Elk once congregated at all three feedgrounds in the river drainage — at Alkali and Fish creeks and Patrol Cabin. When the wapiti were spread out it necessitated a daily snowmobile ride to each site, and feeding often entailed a long day’s work.

Nowadays, figuring safety in numbers, the elk herd tends to ball up at one site. Recently this winter the congregation point has been Patrol Cabin, where fewer than 1,000 animals — near record low numbers for the valley — gathered on a mid-February Friday.

It’s a rare breed of person who is essentially able to be dumped in the wild with a dry cabin, herd of elk and team of horses and survive self-sufficiently for months while not going crazy. But Hoggan’s clearly  cut out for it. The abundant free time, monotony of the work and isolation seldom get to him.

“If your family calls from home and things ain’t going right, then you can get a little ringy,” he said. “But man, usually I just can’t wait to get up and hook that team and get going again.”

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