Don’t poach the pavement: Pathway along Refuge still closed Elk Refuge Transport Buckrail - Jackson Hole, news
North Highway 89 pathway along Elk Refuge. (USFWS)

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – That North Highway 89 pathwayalong the Elk Refuge sure looks good at times every spring. Even now there are days when it seems quite bikeable and no elk are in sight.

Here comes the “however.”

Officials at the National Elk Refuge are reminding the public to please stay off the pathway until they give the okay. Despite the warmer weather and the visible evidence that elk have begun moving out of the refuge, there are still approximately 4,200 elk on the refuge as of last weekend.

The pathway seasonal closure from November 1 to April 30 maximizes benefits to wildlife, important wildlife habitat, and migration corridors. US Fish and Wildlife Service has the final say on the opening and closing of the path. In years past, USFWS has been gracious enough to acknowledge that the calendar doesn’t have to be the final determinant on when the path closes or opens. A mild winter and early spring arrival could mean the pathway opens before April 30.

For now, though, the closure is still in effect for the benefit of the remaining wintering animals.

Refuge 2017-18 winter season

Elk on the Refuge were able to spread out and forage much more this mild winter. About half the winter herd remains so please stay off the pathways until the okay is given. (USFWS)

A substantial number of elk wintered on or adjacent to the National Elk Refuge this season, topping out at 10,200 animals during the annual classification count led by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in February. The number represents 94% of the Jackson Elk Herd, up from 83% wintering in the same areas the previous year. Because of lower snow totals throughout the refuge, much of the herd was dispersed throughout the 24,700-acre wildlife refuge, including the northern hills where winter elk use is less common.

Even though many of the remaining 4,200 elk are out of the public’s view, the increased presence of humans near the fence line can be stressful for wildlife.

“We want to maximize the amount of habitat the elk use and not discourage them from the west side as they stage to move toward summer ranges,” explained Refuge manager Brian Glaspell.

The opening and closing of the pathway is coordinated with Jackson Hole Community Pathways and the Teton County Parks & Recreation Department. Managers use the number of elk remaining on the Refuge and the potential for migration conflicts as the basis for an annual decision to open the pathway as early as April 15. If the number of remaining animals stabilizes to the May 1 long–term average of approximately 2,500 elk or less, an earlier opening is considered.

“We can’t quickly open and close the pathway when animals move near or disperse away from the pathway,” Glaspell said. “Instead, we look at the larger picture rather than individual snapshots in time to make the key management decision.”

GPS collar data shows that peak spring elk movements typically occur during the second and third weeks of April.

Though unauthorized use of the pathway is tempting for cyclists and pedestrians to get in early season exercise, the public is asked to recognize the value of the pathway and its availability for six months of the year.

“It’s one more way to demonstrate a respect and commitment to living compatibly with Jackson’s wildlife,” Glaspell added.