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North Highway 89 multi-use pathway season to be extended

09_23_13_PathwaySeason_ArticleNational Elk Refuge Manager Steve Kallin has announced a trial adjustment to the seasonal closure dates on the North Highway 89 multi–use pathway from Flat Creek to the Gros Ventre bridge.

September 20, 2013 (NER 13-23)

National Elk Refuge Manager Steve Kallin announced today a trial adjustment to the seasonal closure dates on the North Highway 89 multi–use pathway from Flat Creek to the Gros Ventre bridge. Beginning this fall, the annual closure will begin on November 1 rather than the October 1 date previously used since the pathway opened in the spring of 2011.   

The seasonal closure was a key condition of the agreement between Teton County and the National Elk Refuge for pathway use on U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service property. A collaborative decision was made with the County after a 2009 Environmental Assessment determined the restriction was legally required. Another alternative identified during the planning process called for locating the pathway on the west side of the highway with fewer restrictions, but public comment supported the east side placement despite the seasonal closure.  


During the planning phase of the pathway construction in 2007, Refuge staff identified the annual closure dates as October 1 through April 30, basing the dates on current VHF radio elk collar data and yearly observations of elk migration to and from the Refuge. The seasonal dates were in response to one of the primary management concerns that migrating elk attempting to enter the Refuge through elk jumps (openings in the Refuge fence designed for eastward animal movement) would be inadvertently hazed by pathway users onto Highway 89, resulting in vehicle/wildlife collisions. Refuge staff agreed to work with the County over a three– to five–year period after the pathway opened to better analyze impacts of the pathway and determine if seasonal use of the pathway could be expanded.
  

Beginning in 2008, Refuge staff transitioned to the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) elk collars, which provide additional data with much more accurate location information. The equipment can monitor and record elk movements as frequently as every two hours. Additionally, Refuge personnel implemented a south unit elk hunt in 2007 as a means to increase harvest numbers and reduce the size of the elk herd to meet management objectives. Kallin explained, “Elk started arriving at the Refuge later in the season after the southern end of the Refuge was opened to hunting; that trend was verified by recent data collection.” 

 
For the past 2½ years since the pathway opened, biologists have collected GPS elk collar data and conduct weekly elk counts on the area south of the Gros Ventre Hills during both the spring and fall migration periods. Additionally, Brian Schilling from Jackson Hole Community Pathways deployed motion–detecting trail cameras at elk jump locations during the fall migration period in 2011 and 2012. Captured images were recorded along with the specific location, date, time, and species. The resulting information from the various data collection methods was factored into the decision to adjust the seasonal closure dates. Most notably, the refined data collected from the GPS collars documented that the main segment of the Jackson elk herd that crosses the pathway comes from Spring Gulch and the southern area of Grand Teton National Park and is one of the last to migrate to the Refuge each fall. Also, one–third of all pathway crossings occur during daylight hours.  

During the spring, the Refuge fence along the highway restricts elk leaving the Refuge from crossing to the west until they reach the Gros Ventre River. While highway and pedestrian safety during the spring migration remain paramount considerations, an additional management concern includes stress to wintering animals remaining on the Refuge. “Though elk may not visibly appear to be stressed by the presence of pathway users, studies confirm the steady presence of humans reduces the amount of habitat elk will use, thereby increasing the concentration of animals on the rest of the Refuge,” Kallin explained. “Our management goals clearly state our intent to look at ways to reduce concentrations of animals that could increase the risk and spread of disease.”  

GPS collar data showed that peak spring elk movements occur during the second and third weeks of April. Consequently, the spring lifting of the closure is still scheduled for May 1. However, Kallin emphasized the Refuge is developing criteria and will determine on a yearly basis whether the pathway can be opened as early as April 15 in years when spring arrives unusually early. 


Kallin emphasized the mission of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the agreement that was developed when the pathway was approved. “Most people’s confusion over what we can and cannot allow on the Refuge can be traced back to a lack of understanding of the Service’s mission and how we differ from other public lands in the area.” Unlike neighboring federal lands with multiple recreational opportunities, the National Elk Refuge is mandated to prioritize habitat and wildlife conservation, adhering to a “wildlife first” mission when considering or allowing public uses. 
 

The Refuge will retain the authority to enact emergency closures during both the spring and fall seasons to mitigate for wildlife considerations. The pathway seasonal closure dates, based primarily on elk movement data, will be placed in the Draft Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan, which will become available for public comment before the end of the calendar year.  
 
Last Updated: Sep 20, 2013
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