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Once the closure is 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.
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The pathway is closed from November 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 Elk Refuge and Teton County for managing the pathway.
In the fall, starting as early as late October, 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 highway. The presence of human pathway users during migration would likely 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 on the refuge 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 are starting in fall 2011, which will help make future decisions on the management of the pathway.
The pathway is located on property owned by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (the National Elk Refuge), but the pathway itself is owned by Teton County.
The Elk Refuge and Teton 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 Elk Refuge is responsible for managing the use of refuge lands, including what is allowable in terms of constructing and using the pathway.
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 of disturbance to nesting waterfowl and other birds. Dogs can also leave scent markings that will cause elk and other wildlife to avoid certain areas long after the dog has moved on. 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.
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 Elk Refuge, and the refuge makes significant efforts to reduce the amount of wildlife-vehicle collisions.
But, neither the Elk Refuge nor the County has the authority to manage use or operation of the highway. The Elk Refuge is only able to manage the use of refuge property and facilities, such as the pathway. Because pathway use could increase the potential of elk being hit by vehicles, the Elk Refuge is compelled to limit that risk as much as possible.
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 Elk Refuge for pathway violations, and the Sheriff's office has the authority to cite violators for Criminal Trespass pursuant to Wyoming Statute 6-3-303.
The National Elk Refuge, under the authority of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, also has the authority to cite and prosecute violators under Federal law.
Studies are starting in the fall of 2011 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 Elk Refuge to collect the necessary information to make decisions on pathway management. In the absence of data that allows the Elk Refuge to re-evaluate the need for the closure, the closure and dog restrictions will remain as they are. It is expected that 2-3 years minimum of data collection will be needed in order to make informed decisions.
In the fall, the pathway closure is in place to limit potential conflicts between pathway users and migrating elk. The studies will consist of data collection to determine when elk are moving through the pathway corridor area. Motion activated wildlife cameras are installed at each of the seven elk jumps between the Flat Creek Bridge and the Gros Ventre Bridge. The cameras record the date, time of day, types of animals, and approximate number of animals utilizing the elk jumps (or active in the general area). This will allow County Pathway and Elk Refuge officials to evaluate if the closure dates are appropriate or if the management strategy can be modified.
In the spring, the pathway closure is intended to prevent disturbance to foraging or wintering elk, and disturbance to nesting swans and other birds. The studies will consist of observations of elk locations, observations of nesting trumpeter swans, and observations of wildlife response to pathway use.
From the Biota Highway 89 Pathway Monitoring Study Proposal: