A sufficient number of elk have migrated out of the National Elk Refuge to allow the North Pathway along U.S. Highway 89 to open for bicyclists, walkers, runners and other non-motorized users.
National Elk Refuge officials and Jackson Hole Community Pathways staff have agreed to open the North Pathway between the Town of Jackson and Gros Ventre Junction, beginning April 20, ten days ahead of the regularly scheduled May 1st date. The barriers will be taken down today, with pathway sweeping scheduled to follow immediately.
The 5-mile segment of pathway along Highway 89 between the Town of Jackson and Gros Ventre Junction is subject to an annual closure as part of a condition of the agreement between Teton County, Wyo., and the National Elk Refuge, due to the pathway’s location on U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service property. The National Elk Refuge is mandated to prioritize habitat conservation and wildlife management, adhering to a “wildlife first” mission when considering or allowing public recreational uses. The seasonal closure of the pathway protects and maximizes benefits to important wintering wildlife habitat and migration corridors.
Refuge managers have defined criteria to determine when the pathway may open earlier than May 1, using the number of animals remaining on the Refuge and the potential for conflicts with migration as the basis for an annual decision to open the pathway early. National Elk Refuge spokeswoman Lori Iverson explained if large numbers of elk have migrated off the Refuge early, dropping the number of remaining animals to the May 1 long–term average of approximately 2,500 elk, the pathway can potentially open as early as April 15.
Even when elk are not immediately adjacent to the pathway, wildlife managers may keep the pathway closed to encourage dispersal of the animals and not inhibit or discourage migration. The presence of humans on foot or bicycles can discourage animals from using areas on the western edge of the refuge, increase elk density in other locations, deter migration, and cause conflicts with migrating animals.
GPS collar data shows that peak spring elk movements often occur during the second and third weeks of April.
Counts taken on April 19 showed that the number of elk remaining on the refuge had dropped from approximately 3,200 animals on April 17 to less than 2,000 on April 19.
The fall closure date has also been adjusted since the pathway opened in 2011, moving the seasonal closure from October 1 to November 1. The date change reflected the most current data available regarding elk migration patterns near the pathway.
The opening and closing of the pathway is coordinated with Jackson Hole Community Pathways and the Teton County Parks & Recreation Department.
Questions may be directed to Brian Schilling, Pathways Coordinator for Teton County, at (307) 732-8573 or firstname.lastname@example.org.