Hundreds of years before the settlement of this country, elk ranged from the eastern states through central and western North America. They grazed the open prairies, mountain valleys, and foothills. As settlers pushed slowly westward, the distribution of the elk was rapidly reduced to the western mountains. By 1900, elk had disappeared from more than 90 percent of their original range.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as more people settled in Jackson Hole, homesteads, cattle, fences, and farming had encroached on traditional elk migration pathways and wintering areas. Severe winters, reduced elk forage, and decreased habitat contributed to the starvation deaths of thousands of elk in Jackson Hole. While homesteaders and other locals needed to protect their domestic cattle herds and haystacks, they still wanted to have large, healthy elk herds in the valley. As a result of the growing concern, the homesteaders and the locals started to feed the elk. In 1912, the refuge was formed as they continued to feed the elk with horse drawn sleighs.
With the growing awareness of the elk through the late 1800s and early 1900s, the sleigh rides for the general public evolved. They started with people climbing onto the sleighs as they headed out to feed the elk. Because of the growing popularity of the sleigh rides, the refuge had to hire more drivers and sleighs to handle the people that wanted to view the elk. In 1965, the refuge contracted out the first sleigh rides as the result of the amount of people wanting to view the elk herd. This tradition continues today as thousands people still have the opportunity to enjoy the elk herd from horse drawn sleighs.
Today the refuge consists of nearly 25,000 acres devoted to elk winter range. This represents the last remaining elk winter range in Jackson Hole. The National Elk Refuge is administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is one of more than 545 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. This system was established to preserve a national network of lands and waters for the conservation and management of the fish, wildlife and plants of the United States for the benefit of present and future generations.