As development grew at the turn of the 20th century, migratory routes changed. Livestock competed with elk for natural grasses, and elk often raided ranchers' haystacks. These changes and a series of harsh winters led to the starvation of thousands of elk. The community of Jackson grew concerned the elk herd would not survive without human intervention.
In 1910, Stephen Leek attracted national attention by his writings, photographs and lectures about starving elk in the Jackson area. That same year, the Wyoming Legislature appropriated $5,000 for Leek to feed hay on his property south of the town of Jackson to purchase all available hay from local ranchers.
The following year, the Wyoming Legislature asked the U.S. Congress to cooperate with the State of Wyoming in feeding, protecting and preserving big game. Congress responded by appropriating $20,000 to feed, restock, and investigate the elk situation.
In 1911, Edward A. Preble of the U.S. Biological Survey was sent to the area to conduct a thorough study of Jackson Elk Herd. Preble's reported, entitled Report on Condition of Elk in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 1911 contained suggestions for a winter refuge for elk. In that document, he stated, "The establishment of a winter refuge, where the food can be preserved by excluding stock during the summer, is essential for the proper protection of elk." He stated later in the report, "The Biological Survey looks on the establishment of one or more winter refuges as the best solution of the problem of properly caring for the elk in the winter. . . It is earnestly recommended that at least one winter refuge for elk be established."
The National Elk Refuge was established by various Acts of Congress, executive orders, and other documents to provide, preserve, restore, and manage lands for wintering elk, birds, and other big game animals. The main Act of Congress on August 10, 1912 set aside lands "for the establishment of a winter game (elk) reserve in the State of Wyoming, lying south of the Yellowstone Park . . ."
A few of the significant documents and dates in the Refuge's history include:
August 10, 1912 - Act of Congress, Ch. 284, 37, Stat.293: Establishment of a winter elk reserve
March 4, 1913 - Act of Congress, Ch. 145, 37 Stat.847: Establishment and maintenance of winter elk refuge.
July 25, 1940 - Presidential Proclamation 2416: Changed the name from Elk Refuge to National Elk Refuge