By Jim Stanford on April 14, 2013
To the chagrin of many cyclists, the Highway 89 pathway north of town along the National Elk Refuge is closed until April 30.
The closure is part of the deal Teton County arranged with the refuge to build the pathway in 2011. Despite a recent plea by cycling advocate Tim Young to open the path early, the refuge is sticking to the specified dates.
The path offers a velvety-smooth ride 10 miles to Moose and another 8 miles to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Only the portion along the refuge, between Jackson and Gros Ventre Junction, is closed from Oct. 1 to April 30 each year; the park sections presumably are rideable when free of snow.
Although it may seem aggravating and bureaucracy at its worst, there is a rationale behind the closure. To better explain it, county pathways coordinator Brian Schilling provided the following list of frequently asked questions. The bottom line: Be patient, people, and let the refuge finish studying impacts.
Q: Why is the pathway closed?
A: The pathway is closed from Oct. 1 to April 30 to limit potential conflicts between pathway users and migrating elk in the fall, and to limit disturbance to elk and other wildlife by pathway users during the winter and early spring.
Closing the pathway is the only way to ensure that the elk refuge’s mission of “wildlife first” is respected and remains intact. If the pathway is deemed incompatible with the mission of the elk refuge, it would not be permitted on refuge property. The closure is part of the agreement between the refuge and Teton County for managing the pathway.
In the fall, elk migrate across the highway and search for the one-way openings in the refuge fence. It is not uncommon to see individual elk or large herds searching back and forth along the fence. Experience has shown that even a vehicle parked along the highway is enough to cause elk to bolt, sometimes back across the road. The presence of human pathway users during migration likely would cause elk to run back onto the highway and would place elk, pathway users, vehicles and vehicle occupants at risk of a serious accident.
The impacts are slightly different in the winter and springtime for wildlife that have made it safely onto the refuge. By spring, elk and other wildlife are struggling to conserve valuable energy and find feeding opportunities. While winter/spring wildlife are largely accustomed to vehicles on the highway, they are unaccustomed to people on foot or bicycle, and pathway use would cause animals to flee, further stressing their already depleted energy reserves. By the end of April the majority of animals have moved on and food sources are more plentiful. Studies to evaluate the impact of pathway use on wildlife began in 2011 and will help guide future decisions on management of the pathway.
Q: Who owns the pathway?
A: The pathway is located on property owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (National Elk Refuge), but the pathway itself is owned by Teton County. The refuge and county have adopted a memorandum of understanding that sets the rules for the pathway, enforcement of the rules and the ongoing management and evaluation plan. The county is responsible for construction, maintenance and management of the pathway. The refuge is responsible for managing the use of refuge lands, including what is allowable in terms of constructing and using the pathway.
Q: Can I take my dog on the pathway?
A: Dogs (leashed or otherwise) are not permitted on the pathway at any time. In the winter, when elk are on the refuge, dogs must be kept out of the area to prevent immediate and direct disturbance by dogs to elk. In the summer, when there are no elk on the refuge, dogs must be kept out of the area because dogs can leave scent markings or other disturbances that will cause elk and other wildlife to avoid certain areas. When elk are migrating onto the refuge or looking for winter forage areas, it is critical that there are no disturbances that would cause them to shy away from the elk jumps or available forage areas.
Q: Can I walk on the pathway if there are no elk around or on the refuge?
A: While the closure is still in effect, there is no public use allowed on the pathway, even if there are no elk anywhere in the area. The concern is not just for elk already on the refuge, but also for migrating elk that are moving through the area.
Q: Isn’t the highway the real problem?
A: Collisions between wildlife and vehicles are a serious problem in Teton County. When elk are moving across the highway in the fall, elk-vehicle collisions are a primary concern for the refuge, which makes significant efforts to reduce the amount of wildlife-vehicle collisions. Neither the refuge nor the county have authority to manage use or operation of the highway. The refuge is only able to manage the use of its property and facilities, such as the pathway. Because pathway use could increase the potential of elk being hit by vehicles, the refuge is compelled to limit that risk as much as possible.
Q: What’s going to happen if I do use the pathway?
A: Violators of the closure or dog prohibition can be cited for criminal trespass under Wyoming state statutes and/or federal regulations. Teton County has agreed to provide enforcement support to the refuge for pathway violations, and the sheriff’s office has the authority to cite violators. The Fish and Wildlife Service also has the power to cite and prosecute violators under federal law.
Q: Will the closure be re-evaluated or changed?
A: Studies are underway to evaluate the possible impacts of the pathway on wildlife and the elk refuge’s mission. There are no guarantees that the closure or other regulations will be modified, but the county is working with the refuge to collect the necessary information to make decisions on pathway management. In the absence of data that allow the refuge to re-evaluate the need for the closure, restrictions will remain as they are. It is expected that a minimum of two to three years of data collection will be needed to make informed decisions.
(Top photo by Jacqueline Ra)