Comparing the Area's Federal Lands


There are differences in the missions of Jackson Hole's federal land management agencies.

National Wildlife Refuges are different than national parks and national forests. The National Elk Refuge is often viewed as a parcel of federal land similar to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It’s important to understand how the Refuge is different than these federal properties because it helps to understand why certain activities are or are not allowed.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. In a nutshell, our mission can be summarized as “wildlife first.” The FWS offers fewer recreational opportunities than our federal neighbors in order to carry out this mission.

The National Park Service works to conserve the scenery, wildlife, and natural and historic heritage of each unit, while providing for the enjoyment of the public and future generations. Many more recreational opportunities exist in national parks, such as boating, swimming, hiking, skiing, etc.

The U.S. Forest  Service works to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Their mission can be summarized as “multi-use,” providing both recreational and sustainable practices like logging, grazing, oil and gas drilling, etc.

A display in the Refuge's Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, located on the top floor just before the theater, discusses the various missions and agencies that make up the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Like many National Wildlife Refuges, parts of the National Elk Refuge are open to support the “Big 6,” the Refuge System’s term for the public use activities that are generally allowed and promoted: hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, wildlife photography, education, and interpretation. The National Elk Refuge receives continuing pressure to expand these activities or create new opportunities that are allowed on other federal lands, despite the “wildlife first” mission of the agency. Management of refuge lands is of concern to other users, such as:

  • state and federal wildlife managers, which sometimes have different mandates and objectives
  • local ranchers, outfitter and businesses, which have economic concerns
  • conservation groups with specific missions desired outcomes

The National Elk Refuge must balance these interests with agency mandates and ecological principles, sometimes leading to conflict.