Elk Beyond The Pine Ridge
Photos and text by Eric Fowler
Published in NEBRASKAland Magazine, October 2010
While the Pine Ridge elk herd is the oldest, largest and best
known herd in Nebraska, other herds have appeared, sometimes
suddenly and even surprisingly, in other parts of Nebraska.
Boyd County Elk
In the early 1990s, captive elk escaped from a pen on the
Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation near Pickstown, South Dakota.
Some of those elk crossed the Missouri River and made themselves
at home in the rugged cedar and oak forested canyons rising
from the river into Nebraska’s Boyd County. By 1994, biologists
estimated 20 to 40 head were spending the late summer and fall
in the canyons abutting croplands near the small town of Gross
before moving north into South Dakota in the winter and spring.
In 1996, Nebraska and South Dakota created an elk season in
which hunters from both states could hunt on either side of
the state line. Tom Welstead, district wildlife manager in
the Commission’s Norfolk office, said the erratic hunting success,
as well as the migratory nature of the herd, has made it difficult
to estimate the number of elk in the area. Rarely are more
than 20 elk counted in a single group, and he estimates the
total population at 100 or fewer. Hunters are asked to report
how many cows and calves they see, but despite those reports
indicating reproduction that matches the average for elk elsewhere,
Welstead said all indications point to minimal herd growth,
if any at all.
“I think that they reach their carrying capacity in that small
area and they just move out,” he said. Where they go is anyone’s
guess, but Welstead gets enough reports from areas along the
lower Niobrara River to the south that he believes some are
moving that direction. Others are likely moving to the northwest
in South Dakota, but in neither state has a new herd become
The Loess Canyons Herd
In 2002, more than 500-square miles of loess canyons covered
in cedar trees and mixed-grass prairie south of the Platte
River between Maxwell and Curtis became the third area in Nebraska
with a large enough elk population to allow for a hunting season.
Richard Nelson, district wildlife manager in the Commission’s
North Platte Office, said the first significant elk sighting
in the region came two decades earlier and 35 or so miles to
the southeast: “In 1981, a rancher along Red Willow Creek had
a branding crew and they reported seeing 17 or 18 elk in one
herd,” he said.
Whether those elk came from Colorado, Wyoming or Nebraska,
and whether they were the seed to the loess canyons herd, isn’t
certain, but by the late 1990s elk were firmly entrenched in
the area, something Nelson said didn’t surprise him considering
the historic range of the species. He estimates there are now
between 125 and 175 elk in the herd, but getting an accurate
count in the area’s rugged canyons, where there are few roads,
has been nearly impossible.
Hoping to get a better count, as well as determine the extent
of the elk herd’s range, its composition, reproductive rate
and habitat preference, Commission biologists trapped seven
elk in 2003 and 2004, fitted them with radio collars or ear
tags and tracked their movements. The study, funded in part
by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which as also helped
with other studies and the acquisition and improvement of elk
habitat in Nebraska, tracked the elk from both land and air,
hoping to get visual sightings of the collared elk and any
others with them.
“When we knew where an elk was based on the telemetry signal,
we still couldn’t count the whole herd and sometimes we couldn’t
even count the one we had a signal from,” said Lance Hastings,
the Commission biologist who led the project.
“We did get some good movement information and found where
they were calving, their winter habitat, summer habitat and
things like that, but we didn’t fulfill our goal of getting
a good estimate of the total population.”
Hastings said the study found the herd spent most of its time
in a 15- to 20-mile-long area between the Box Elder and Cottonwood
canyons, with occasional forays further from that area, including
one bull that wandered 40 miles to the southeast before returning.
Elk on the North Platte River
John Orr remembers thinking his horses had gotten out when
he spotted a pair of bull elk as he left his house one morning
to do chores on his farm and ranch southwest of Lewellen in
the early-1980s. “I thought I was crazy when I first saw them,”
he said. “It’s quite impressive the first one you ever see,
how much bigger they are. I was used to seeing deer down there
all of the time and man alive, there’s no doubt that is not
a deer you’re looking at.”
Those bulls didn’t stick around, but about 10 years later
Orr spotted three more that did. “We started seeing more the
next year and then we started seeing cows and the population
really took off,” he said.
By 1994, biologists estimated there were 10 to 15 head of
elk living along the North Platte River between Lisco and Lewellen.
Todd Nordeen, district wildlife manager in the Commission’s
Alliance office, estimates the herd has grown to 25 head. Another
herd of 25 lives along the river near Broadwater, with additional
elk scattered between the Wyoming state line and Clear Creek
Wildlife Management area at the west end of Lake McConaughy.
“With all that ag land and all the human activity, that was
a little bit of a surprise, but they seem to have adapted fairly
well,” Nordeen said.
While one might expect the elk to prefer the rugged cedar
canyons to the south of the river, the elk on and near Orr’s
place spend most of the year in the willow and cottonwood forest
along the river or nearby cornfields, retreating to the canyons
only when goose hunters begin banging away along the river
in the late fall.
Elk also found their way into the Wildcat Hills, the pine-
and cedar-covered escarpment that stretches from Bridgeport
60 miles west into Wyoming. Nordeen said there are three established
herds in the region, the largest being about 75 head southwest
of Bridgeport, with smaller herds south of Gering and Morrill.
In 2005, there were enough elk along the North Platte River
and in the Wildcats Hills that the Commission opened a broad
area including both to hunting.
Elk on the Niobrara River
Mark Johnson remembers seeing elk on his ranch on the north
edge of the Niobrara River Valley near Nenzel in the early
1990s, but for several years sightings there and in the canyons
closer to the river were rare.
Biologists from Nebraska and South Dakota believe the elk
Johnson was seeing came from the Rosebud Indian Reservation
to the north, where captive elk escaped and then thrived in
cedar-covered hills about 20 miles north Johnson’s. As that
herd grew, more and more elk were seen in Nebraska, especially
after hunting opportunities on the reservation increased.
Most of the cow elk migrate between the two states, spending
summers in the canyons along the Niobrara and winters in South
Dakota. Johnson saw the migration firsthand a few years ago
when he woke in the pre-dawn hours to check his cows during
spring calving season and with a spotlight watched a long string
of cows head south toward the river.
Many of the bulls in the herd stay in Nebraska year-round,
and before the area opened to elk hunting in 2007, Johnson
counted as many as 26 bulls on his pivots during the winter.
Early in the winter, before the cows head north, the herd feeds
in Johnson’s corn and alfalfa fields, often retiring to one
of two small patches of Sandhills overlooking his place.
Reports of elk on and around the Samuel R. McKelvie National
Forest, south of Johnson’s and the Niobrara River, are becoming
more common. A few years ago, a cow and calf, likely from the
Nenzel herd, spent some time on Cottonwood-Steverson Wildlife
Management Area in the Sandhills 45 miles southwest of Johnson’s.
Elk from the Nenzel herd may also have provided the seed for
herds that are slowly growing near Bassett and Valentine. But
those elk could have also moved upriver from the Boyd Unit.
“For a long time they were really not having very many calves,”
Ben Rutten, district wildlife manager in the Commission’s Bassett
office, said of the two bands near Basset and Valentine. “They’re
growing now, not very fast, but there’s steady growth.”
The growth of the herd east of Valentine has led to big changes
at the nearby Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Home
to a captive elk herd since 1913, the refuge is now shifting
its management toward free-ranging elk. In early 2009, 18 elk
in an enclosure on the north side of the Niobrara were culled
and the eight-foot fence lowered to five feet to allow the
free ranging elk to come and go as they please. When the wild
herd grows to at least 45 head, elk in the display pastures
to the south of the river will be culled, the remaining fences
lowered, and the refuge opened to elk hunting, which is already
allowed around it. (Archery and muzzleloader deer hunting will
be allowed as soon as the refuge’s Deer and Elk Management
Plan is approved by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials
in Washington, a move that was expected to be completed in
2010 but has been delayed to 2011.)
Elk hunting on the refuge may begin sooner than expected.
Todd Frerichs, deputy project leader at the refuge, said a
fencing crew working on the refuge last fall counted 37 head
in one herd. Last winter, about 30 head, mostly cows, calves
and spike bulls, fed regularly in center pivots north of Highway
12 between Valentine and Sparks. “I could charge admission,”
Carl Simmons, owner of some of the pivots the elk were using,
said of the steady stream of people that drove out to watch
Three is plenty more suitable habitat for elk along the 500
river miles the Niobrara River traverses in Nebraska (300 linear
miles), especially the eastern half, with its forested canyons.
“The habitat will support a lot more as they scatter out up
and down the river and fill in between the core areas we have
now,” Rutten said.