Cycling along the National Elk Refuge

A cyclist makes his way past Flat Creek on the pathway adjacent to the National Elk Refuge in April 2016. The pathway closes seasonally through the winter, opening either on May 1 or when fewer than 2,500 elk are present on the 24,700-acre refuge. Some parties are asking refuge staff to reconsider the seasonal closures.

Teton County commissioners and the advocacy group Friends of Pathways have asked the National Elk Refuge to take another look at its seasonal closure dates for the Highway 89 pathway.

The 6.2-mile path paralleling the highway, which is about a decade old, is currently being reviewed by the refuge to ensure it’s still compatible with the wildlife-first policies and mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns and manages the land. No changes to the November-through-April closure dates were proposed, but some parties are using the public review to ask for a second look.

“I don’t want to send a letter that purports to dictate management of that pathway,” Luther Propst told fellow commissioners while marking up the county’s comment letter. “We shouldn’t be dictating to the Fish and Wildlife Service, even if we had the authority, but I am comfortable asking them to … evaluate opening that pathway for those 2 miles and look at the appropriate seasonal limitations.”

It’s the southernmost 2 miles of pathway, between the National Museum of Wildlife Art and town, that the county asked the refuge to reevaluate during the winter. Commissioners also urged another look at springtime open dates once the entire pathway is free of snow, which is a request that Friends of Pathways echoed in its own comment letter, according to a newsletter from the group.

Both the county and Friends of Pathways also asked the refuge to examine grooming or plowing the pathway south of the museum in the winter.

About 20 comments were submitted about the pathway in all, and Refuge Manager Frank Durbian is still sorting out who asked for what. Through the “compatibility determination” process underway the refuge clarified types of electric bikes that are to be allowed on the paved path, but otherwise staff didn’t really propose any changes.

Refuge biologist Eric Cole said data is lacking that shows the relationship between human activity on the pathway and elk habitat use in adjoining areas, because the route was closed while wapiti are present from the onset.

“But what we do have is a lot of data for is Refuge Road,” Cole said. “It’s very clear that pedestrian use and bicycle use on the road reduces elk habitat use adjacent to the road.”

“Existing data based on what’s happening on the Refuge Road,” he said, “is more than enough to predict what would happen near the pathway were it open throughout the winter.”

While bighorn sheep near Miller Butte are successfully able to habituate to traffic and people on foot, elk can’t make that adjustment, he said.

“They’re hunted heavily, late into the year,” Cole said. “They do habituate to the sleigh rides, but humans on foot is a completely different situation.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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