Nearly 7,300 elk were counted at the refuge, just outside Grand Teton National Park, about 1,100 fewer animals than last year

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JACKSON, Wyo. — Nearly 7,300 elk have been counted on feed lines at the National Elk Refuge near Jackson.

The count is 1,100 fewer animals than a year ago and a step in the direction of a 5,000-elk goal that the refuge is striving to achieve.

But local wildlife managers, for now, are reluctant to make much of the number.

“It doesn’t necessarily equate to a population reduction,” National Elk Refuge biologist Eric Cole told the Jackson Hole News & Guide. “It’s probably a distributional issue.”

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Cole said when the count happened a year ago, weather conditions had pushed elk off their winter range and toward the areas where alfalfa pellets are provided for the animals.

So far this winter, the elk have had less incentive to seek supplemental meals.

An aerial Wyoming Game and Fish Department count that took place this past week will provide estimates for “native range” winter elk.

“There’s a lot of elk off feedgrounds that we’re still counting,” Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife biologist Aly Courtemanch said.

Counts of elk at three feedgrounds near the Gros Ventre River will also be completed soon, and once all the data is pooled Courtemanch will have a better idea of the overall status of the Jackson Elk Herd.

Last winter the herd was estimated at 11,000 animals, and the refuge hosted a much larger percentage of the herd than managers desired.