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Lander Valley Elk and Brucellosis Update

March 20, 2019
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Lander - Over the last few winters, several groups of elk have congregated near the west edge of Lander or within just a few miles of town.  In the last two winters, as many as 400 elk have been counted within five miles of Lander between the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Popo Agie River. 

The elk have been attracted to these lower elevations for a variety of reasons. Elk started coming down to the Sinks Canyon Road near the City of Lander’s water treatment facility in the mid-2000s, as early as September or October of some years, as hunting pressure and ATV use on the Shoshone National Forest near Timber Top and Fairfield Hill increased.  Some of these elk started roaming farther north and staying longer over the years, where they found some ungrazed open areas near the Squaw Creek Road at the southwest edge of Lander. More recently, groups of elk started finding similar areas farther northwest along both sides of the North Fork Popo Agie River and areas in between, such as Squaw Creek and Baldwin Creek.  Once there, the elk found areas with lush grass associated with or in irrigated hayfields, unprotected haystacks (especially at first), very little hunting pressure, and less snow in some winters than where they had been wintering on the Lander Foothills.  Also, there was an increasing presence of wolves in the foothills and other areas especially two to four years ago.

Elk in pre-settlement Wyoming were probably a mixture of elk that migrated into the mountains in spring and back to the valleys in winter, along with other elk that lived year-round in the sagebrush plains throughout the state. As settlers started to settle the Lander Valley in the 1800s (and similar valleys elsewhere in Wyoming), elk migrating out of the mountains began stopping short of the valleys and spent the majority of the winters in the foothills along windswept slopes and only moved lower into the valleys as snows got too deep in the most severe winters.

Although these low elevation wintering elk herds near Lander seem pretty content and a lot of residents and visitors to Lander enjoy seeing the elk around, some homeowners and landowners in the area do not share the same level of happiness.  Elk (especially groups of up to 300 animals) can eat a LOT of grass or hay. When they move from one place to another, they do not really do well with and cause a lot of damage to the vast amount of fences that surround most of the properties they move across, and they have destroyed trees and shrubs planted in numerous yards around people’s rural subdivision homes. Not to mention the safety hazards (to drivers and themselves) they pose when crossing the county roads and highways especially in the low light hours from dusk ‘til dawn on roads where elk haven’t been common until very recently.

As elk started moving into areas with livestock feedlines, especially cattle, there has arisen a growing concern about the potential for elk to carry the bacterial disease Brucellosis (Brucella abortus) to the cattle herds. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that originated in cattle, but now is primarily found in Rocky Mountain elk and bison. The disease is currently limited to northwestern Wyoming and adjoining portions of Montana and Idaho. Cows (all species) often abort their first fetus after becoming infected. A state/federal eradication program has almost eliminated the disease in cattle, but infected elk and bison are a reservoir for the disease and pose a continuing threat to the livestock industry. The primary management concern is the possible transmission of brucellosis from elk or bison back to domestic cattle. If domestic cattle herds become infected with brucellosis, there can be wide-reaching economic hardships to cattle producers. More information about brucellosis can be found at

In January 2018, Wyoming Game and Fish Department began getting increasing and repeated complaints about elk getting into haystacks and coming into cattle and horse feedlines in several areas. These complaints prompted Game and Fish to begin hazing elk away from several problem areas between the Sinks Canyon Road and the North Fork Popo Agie River. Many of the elk were fairly habituated to getting easy meals and hazing was initially rather ineffective at keeping them away. As the winter wore on personnel kept at it and the efforts became more successful. However, hazing elk is not popular with many people that enjoy seeing the elk so close to Lander.

In the 2018 hunting season process, Game and Fish decided to implement a “winter” cow/calf elk season focused in the area between the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Popo Agie River where the greatest conflicts have arisen. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Commission created the Area 28 Type 6 hunt with 25 licenses valid from December 1, 2018 to January 31, 2018. This hunt was implemented to accomplish at least two objectives:  1) Change the behavior of the elk and make them less comfortable seeking easy forage, especially those elk that consistently attempt to get into haystacks and livestock feed areas and 2) provide additional brucellosis samples for testing in the highest risk areas where elk and cattle have been in close proximity.

At least 14 hunters were successful in harvesting elk in this two-month season, with several taken in the last week of January. While hunter success was lower than anticipated, the season seems to have been successful, as their distribution has changed.  The elk have avoided the highest risk areas near cattle much more this winter compared to a year ago.  There are still around 300 elk lingering just west of Lander near the Sinks Canyon, Squaw Creek, and Baldwin Creek Roads, but they have not frequently visited cattle feeding lines or areas. Since early February, there have been no elk in some of the places where numerous problems existed last year in the North Fork Road and along Sinks Canyon Road.

To learn more about the movements and habitat use of these elk throughout the year, Game and Fish captured/chemically immobilized two cow elk in late-January 2018 and then in late-February and early-March 2019, seven more cow elk were captured using a helicopter and net-gun to deploy GPS tracking collars. Collar data and traditional trend count flights have shed light on elk movements and many elk are still wintering on traditional foothill winter ranges.  

In 2018, the Game and Fish’s annual brucellosis surveillance program focused some of their effort on hunter-harvested elk in most of the elk hunt areas in central Wyoming, including areas 25, 27, 28, and 127 near Lander.  Since January 2018, a total of 137 blood samples were collected from hunter harvests, accidental deaths, and captured elk and all samples tested negative for brucellosis!  In March 2019, at least 60 more elk are being collared and tested on the Wind River Reservation and one more was collared and tested on March 14, 2019 in Hunt Area 28.

In the coming weeks, Game and Fish personnel will be monitoring the locations of elk near Lander by ground and using the GPS collar locations, and proposed 2019 hunting seasons include the Area 28 Type 6 license opportunity again.  

Hunt Area
Brucellosis Samples Tested Number of Positive Samples
25 47 0
27 17
28 51
127 22
Total Tested 137

Number of brucellosis samples tested from January 2018 through February 2019 (at least 61 more samples will be tested in March 2019)

- WGFD -

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