Wyoming Wildlife - January 2017

Winter Keepers


Frost gathers on Matt Izenhart’s face as he heads out to feed elk at the South Park feedground south of Jackson.


As temperatures drop and deep snows cover the high country, a handful of hearty souls brave every dawn to take on one of the most unique jobs in Wyoming


Mark Gocke
1/1/2017 3:32:47 PM

Cold. Wyoming cold. The kind that wallops with a stinging slap on the face and takes your breath the minute you walk out the door. Staying indoors by the fire sounds pretty nice, but that is not an option. So you head out into the cold darkness, the snow creaking beneath each step. A cow elk calls in the distance, another answers.

The work begins with a hint of light on the horizon. The draft horses stand tall, well above your head. You grab the heavy leather harnesses and heave them onto the massive animal’s back. The horses jostle a bit on hooves the size of dinner plates, but they know the routine. They have done it with you every winter day for years.

Winter Keepers Photo

Feeder Matt Izenhart, left, and Game and Fish Elk Feedground Manager Dave Hyde bring the sleigh around to load more hay on a cold morning at the South Park feedground. A busier feedground may use around 12,000 bales of hay in one winter season. The South Park feedground is one of the largest state-owned feedgrounds, it feeds herds that can number more than 1,000.

The two are like brothers, inseparable. Nip and Tuck are a team. Side by side, bound together, hitched to the wooden tongue between them. They must work in unison to move the heavy sleigh that weighs 2-3 tons when stacked with a full load of hay.

“Nip, Tuck, step up!” Their powerful bodies jar the frozen sleigh from the snow and off you go with the horses in a trot, the cold air biting at your face. With a firm tug on the reins and a stern “Whoa!” the horses bring the sleigh to a halt next to the towering stack of hay, right where you left off yesterday.

You tie off the reins and scramble to get atop the stack, sometimes using hay hooks like ice axes to pull yourself up the vertical wall, hoping the bales hold. Brushing the loose hay aside, you find the snugly-wrapped twine, force your gloved fingers under it and hoist the 100-pound bale.

Hopefully, you don’t punch your foot down a crack between bales while you carry your heavy load across this makeshift mountain. Skillfully you toss the bale over the edge and it hits the sleighbed below with a thud. If you’re good at this, it lands flat and doesn’t tumble off the side. Your muscles repeat this routine over and over until balesare stacked four or five high across the sled. The sweat soon beads up and an outside layer is shed despite the cold air.

“Nip, Tuck, step up!” The sleigh creaks and the horses breathe heavy as they pull the big load through deep snow and out into a herd of calling elk. The less wary animals cautiously run in closer to get first dibs on the green hay. Nip and Tuck are slowed to a walk as each lash of twine is cut and hay is flaked off onto the snow.

Winter Keepers Photo

Feeder Matt Izenhart, left, and Game and Fish Elk Feedground Manager Dave Hyde bring the sleigh around to load more hay on a cold morning at the South Park feedground. A busier feedground may use around 12,000 bales of hay in one winter season. The South Park feedground is one of the largest state-owned feedgrounds, it feeds herds that can number more than 1,000.

Steam from the excited herd of calling elk forms a layer of fog in the dense, cold air. A pair of cows rear up and box at each other for their space on the hay line. You recognize the unique ones as you pass them only feet away, the bull with the drop tine, the cow with a white patch of hair, the tiny calf born late, the bull with a limp. You get to know them well.

This is what must be done every day, no matter the brutal weather, until the snows recede in the springtime. It is hard work, no doubt. But you may just have the most unique job in the world.

—Mark Gocke has served as the information and education specialist for the Jackson and Pinedale regions for more than 20 years. He continues to torture his friends, family and co-workers with an over-the-top interest in photography.

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