National Elk Refuge officials say they’re working to rectify rampant disregard for the seasonal closure of the multi-use pathway that parallels Highway 89 and the refuge fence.
Especially on sunny days, cyclists, joggers and pedestrians have been routinely ignoring the gates and signage explaining that the 6-mile-long pathway is still closed. Most days, trail counters along the route are detecting 10 to 20 users, but the counter was tripped 67 times on the most noncompliant day this spring, Sunday, April 4. The intent of the closure, a nod to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wildlife-first mission, is to prevent the disturbance of the thousands of elk that remain on the federal property.
“There were still 3,500 elk on the south end of the refuge at the tail end of last week, so if people are on the refuge pathway, it’s not because it’s open,” Refuge Biologist Eric Cole said.
The pathway, constructed in 2011, opens automatically May 1. Alternatively, the refuge will open the route during the second half of April if the number of elk on the southern flats of the refuge dips below 2,500 — the long-term average at the onset of May.
If the pathway does open during April this year, it’ll only be a few days early since May arrives this weekend.
Wyoming Pathways Executive Director Tim Young says he doesn’t blame people who opt to tread on the closed asphalt pathway rather than braving a ride or jog along a highway shoulder.
“I don’t see this as a compliance issue, personally,” Young said. “Representing Wyoming Pathways, we see it as a problem with regulation.”
“The regulation should be changed, that’s how we fix this,” he said. “It’s a safety issue for human beings, traveling along the highway corridor, and I think they have every right to be on that pathway.”
The seasonal closure is the result of negotiations between Teton County and the Elk Refuge that preceded the pathway being built a decade ago. In late 2020, the refuge reassessed the pathway by preparing a “compatibility determination” that allowed the public to give input. At that time Friends of Pathways, Wyoming Pathways and a number of residents wrote in asking the refuge to consider adjusting the closure dates.
When Refuge Manager Frank Durbian signed off on the reauthorization in February, he explained his rationale for leaving the seasonal closure, which starts in November, as it is.
“The need to continue this seasonal closure has not changed,” Durbian wrote.
The document cites GPS collar data and visual observations of decreased elk use of the grasslands adjacent to Refuge Road, which is open to pedestrians for the first 3.5 miles throughout the year.
“This is why there is a seasonal closure of the north portion of the North Elk Refuge Road and associated Forest Service roads,” the refuge manager’s decision says.
Continuing the pathway closure, he wrote, will reduce wildlife disturbance, reduce winter stress and maximize habitat use by wintering elk.
Durbian told the Jackson Hole Daily that enforcement of the pathway closure has been a challenge. The Teton County Sheriff’s Office took the lead enforcing the closure based on the refuge and county’s original agreement, but due to “jurisdictional issues,” deputies are no longer helping. That leaves the task of enforcement to the refuge’s lone officer, Bryan Yetter. Keeping people off the pathway is not always his highest priority.
Teton County Deputy Attorney Keith Gingery, County Pathway Coordinator Brian Schilling and Durbian have been in talks about a solution to the noncompliance. One alternative to strict enforcement and issuing citations would be to enlist “volunteer educators” to stage along the pathway near town to explain the reasoning for the seasonal closure.
“We will do our best to provide as much information to the public as possible and try to figure out why people are violating it, either knowingly or unknowingly,” Schilling said. “The county made an agreement with the Elk Refuge, and it’s up to us and the public to uphold our end of the agreement.”