Working drafts: WGFD, John Fandek utilize teams to feed elk on feedgrounds
Cora – John Fandek loves draft horses. He’s been working with horses daily throughout the winter and feeding with teams for more than 40 years. In fact, John started feeding elk for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) many years ago, taking over the job from a fellow he used to work for. Today, he’s the oldest feeder in the state.
“I’d been working for a rancher who did all his haying and feeding with horses,” John says. “This is when I began working with draft horses, and enjoyed it.”
When John started raising his own horses, he raised Percherons.
“At one time, I had five Percherons and Percheron crosses,” he shares. “Right now, I’m down to one and this is probably her last season – she is an old-timer.”
John enjoyed raising and training his own horses, and the best horses he’s ever had were the ones he raised himself.
“They know you and you know them – it’s a true partnership,” John says.
“Feeding with horses is the only practical way, since this country is snowbound all winter – it’s difficult to get around with vehicles,” John says.
His place is along the upper Green River, between Pinedale and Jackson. Elk in the area come to winter feedgrounds where WGFD has been feeding them since the 1930s, and now the elk migrations are centered around the various feedgrounds located throughout the region.
“On this particular feedground, I start feeding in late November and this spring, I quit feeding in mid-April,” John shares. “There’s no green grass here yet, but the snow has been melting and the country is opening up enough for elk herds to disperse.”
He explains elk move south to lower elevations where the country opens up sooner and there is more feed available, rather than moving to the mountains. As snow melts, elk move to higher elevations.
“What is interesting is the antelope are migrating north while elk are going south, and they pass each other,” John says.
Most of the winter, John feeds with a sleigh because there is so much snow, but by spring, the snow on the feeding area melts off. By early April, he starts using a wagon instead.
“I drive the team with one hand and feed with the other,” John says, noting once hay is loaded, one person can feed.
“Feeding elk with teams is unique to this area because it’s high elevation with a lot of snow,” he explains. “Montana and Colorado don’t feed elk as much. As far as I know, they only feed elk in extreme situations.”
John continues, “This is a full-scale program here in western Wyoming, simply because of the conditions, elevation and the fact the winter range is now very limited.” Most feeding grounds in western Wyoming are in the least populated county in the least populated state, but now many more people are moving in.
Feeding with horses
“Where I’m feeding, there’s so much snow and we can’t drive to it with a vehicle – I have to use a snowmobile to get there to feed,” he shares. “There are two teams on site, so there’s always one for backup.”
John adds, “I use the two teams interchangeably. This year, I had three WGFD horses and one of my own to make up the two teams.”
This is the last draft horse John owns, and he doesn’t think he will be raising any more. John shares he has had some good horses over the years, and some were so easy to break that it only took a few days for them to learn their job.
“I usually start them with a well-broken horse, and they learn as they go,” he says, noting his really good horses have been a combination of horses he raised and some he’s used that belonged to WGFD.
John has also had a lot of saddle horses over the years.
“A person tends to use a good horse more than the others, because we like the horse and we trust it,” he shares. “There are other horses we only use if we have to.”
John notes good horses are special because they work as a partner. It is humbling, he shares, because a good horse will give everything it can.
In western Wyoming, WGFD owns a good number of draft horses – about 10 teams.
“In this region, there are 22 feedgrounds,” says John. “Some of the guys who feed elk provide their own horses, but now WGFD provides most of the horses.”
He continues, “In the past, if someone wanted one of these jobs, they had to supply the horses. A long time ago, WGFD had some draft horses.”
“They got out of the business, and there was a period when we had to provide our own horses to feed elk for WGFD,” John adds. “Now, they own draft horses again because there are fewer people who actually have horses.”
Everyone asks John how much long he plans to continue to do this and he usually replies with, “Maybe one more year.” He has been saying this for the last six or seven years.
“I am in a situation where I feel like I am responsible for those elk and at this time I don’t want to quit,” John says. “I know these elk and recognize certain individuals from year to year. It’s like going out in a herd of cows and recognizing various individuals.”
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.