When Federal Wildlife Officer Cris Dippel heads out onto the Refuge Road during the winter months, he’s likely to make a stop within the first mile of leaving the Administrative Office. While many law enforcement contacts focus on human safety, Dippel also has the health of one of the Refuge’s most iconic species in mind: the local bighorn sheep population that can often be seen near Miller Butte.
Winter on the National Elk Refuge can be a wildlife watcher’s dream. Bighorn sheep are only one of several species that use the Refuge as their winter home, bringing enjoyment to both locals and visitors alike. Thousands of elk winter within easy view from a number of locations close to the Town of Jackson, sleigh riders also see coyotes and bald eagles among the elk herd, pronghorns can sometimes be spotted near the Refuge Road, and elegant trumpeter swans dot the landscape along Flat Creek.
While sharing these wildlife viewing opportunities with the public is exciting, Refuge staff struggles to balance it with human-wildlife interactions that can cause more harm than good.
Take the case of the bighorn sheep. They have been identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need by the Refuge’s State partner, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. Bighorn sheep populations throughout the west have been impacted by outbreaks of pneumonia, making it one of the biggest obstacles to restoring populations. The Jackson herd experienced two known significant die-offs in 2002 and 2011, with 50 and 30 percent of the population lost to disease, respectively.
Bighorn sheep on the Refuge Road aren’t shy about approaching vehicles to lick the salt and minerals found on a car or truck’s surface. Not only can the animals then also ingest harmful chemicals in the process, but it increases the likelihood of spreading pneumonia in the event the bacteria is present within the herd.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t the only agency concerned about the health of the bighorn sheep. An interagency working group formed in the early 1990s to facilitate cooperation among the wildlife and land management agencies managing bighorn sheep and its habitat within the Teton Range. Though that segment of the sheep population doesn’t winter on the Refuge, there is still cooperation among the agencies to monitor the Refuge’s herd segment as well as agreement for the need to increase education and support for conservation strategies.
Educating visitors in an area that has such a big tourist draw is an ongoing process, though, Dippel explains. “We can talk to dozens of people out on the Refuge Road on any given day, asking them to not stop in the road and let the bighorn sheep lick cars, but the next day, we have a whole new audience that has just arrived in town.”
Wildlife viewing concerns aren’t isolated to just bighorn sheep on the Refuge Road, however. Because wintering elk can so easily be seen from Highway 26/89 north of Jackson, the draw of getting as close as possible to view the charismatic animals often leads people to park on the side of the busy highway, cross over the closed pathway, and walk up to the fence that serves to keep elk off the roadway. The presence of humans on foot often causes large groups of elk to frantically run from the area, a disturbance that, over time, can wear on wildlife during a season when conserving energy is key to survival.
The National Elk Refuge recently updated a Winter Wildlife Viewing Guide to reflect some of these concerns and give people guidance on how to enjoy their experience in a way that minimizes disturbance
Stopping on the Refuge Road and letting sheep lick the surface of a vehicle as well as people approaching the fence along the highway on foot are two common wildlife viewing practices that can be detrimental to wildlife.
Blood is drawn from a bighorn sheep as part of a herd health assessment.
to the very wildlife they’ve come to see. Using messaging tested during a communication campaign led by the National Park Service and Colorado State University, Refuge staff hopes to encourage more visitors to keep their distance from wildlife. “I love the slogan, ‘Sometimes the best relationship is a long-distance one,’ ” explains Lori Iverson, who leads up the Refuge’s outreach program. “In the case of wildlife, it’s certainly true.”
Rather than stopping in the Refuge Road, wildlife watchers are encouraged to keep driving when sheep approach their vehicle, using a pullout further from the herd and then walking to within a reasonable distance for photos or observation.
“Despite the tame look of an animal, no one should ever forget or downplay the ‘wildness’ of our wildlife,” Iverson explains. Visitors often can’t gauge the effect their presence is having on wildlife.
An incredibly complex stress response may be happening within the animal but isn’t always discernible to a visitor casually watching the animal. The popularity of watching and capturing events with a camera can add to the problem. People may get too close to wildlife in pursuit of a better photo. “While wildlife photography is an activity we encourage on wildlife refuges, it needs to be done in a manner that doesn’t cause an animal distress,” added Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell.
The Refuge’s guidance also notes that sharing images of poor etiquette can compound the problem by encouraging others to do the same. Instead, Iverson suggests, posting wildlife pictures with hashtags such as #FindYourDistance and #RespectOurSpace or noting a close-up image was taken with a long lens are easy conservation actions and can help spread an important message.
A printable version of the Refuge’s Winter Wildlife Viewing Guide is posted on the Refuge’s web site
Binoculars, long camera lenses, and spotting scopes can all be helpful tools to watch wildlife while keeping a safe distance away.