Antlers poked out above the crowd at Town Hall on Tuesday as wildlife crossing advocates emulated the megafauna they came to defend.
Some 50 of them — not all horned — packed the room and lined up out the door, stealing the show with emotional appeals to elected officials to fund structures that would offer animals safe passage across Jackson Hole’s deadliest thoroughfares.
Voice quavering and antlers jutting from her head, Melissa Wandursky recalled sitting with a doe as it died in her yard near Hoback Junction after colliding with a vehicle.
“To see the fear in that animal’s eyes as it was suffering was probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “They were here first. ... We have the means to protect them.”
Others echoed her story, including several people who live near the intersection of Highways 22 and 390 — the top priority site in the wildlife crossings master plan. They urged the Town Council and Board of County Commissioners to approve a request for $15 million, raised through the specific purpose excise tax.
With an election for the voter-approved 1 percent sales tax looming in November, wildlife crossings have been the source of an outpouring of public support. But some in Tuesday’s crowd — including Sandy Shuptrine and Vance Carruth, both founding members of the Safe Wildlife Crossings movement — had been working toward this for nearly two decades.
“For too long, wildlife’s future in Jackson Hole has not been given the kind of consideration it truly deserves,” Carruth said. “Everything worth building has a cost.”
Besides the comments of those who showed up in person, dozens of emails saturated the inboxes of town councilors and county commissioners in the days leading up to the meeting.
Among them was an official letter of support for the crossings from Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Jackson Region, which cited the hundreds of animals that perish each year throughout Teton County.
In 2017-18 the fatality rate hit the low end at 181, according to the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation’s database. Figures in the high 200s and even 300s are not uncommon, with 2016-17 coming in at 358. Of those, 265 were mule deer, 46 were elk and 18 were moose.
“Our staff often experience firsthand the aftermath of wildlife collisions,” wrote Doug McWhirter, wildlife management coordinator for the region. “Euthanizing injured animals as a result of collisions is one of the most disheartening and discouraging parts of our jobs.”
All the elected officials support funding wildlife crossings to some extent, but several have suggested dropping the figure to $7.5 million or less. They reserved their own discussion for a later meeting.
Jon Mobeck, executive director of the Wildlife Foundation, argued that even $15 million is “far less than we need ... but it’s a very good start.” And according to his calculations, it will pay off in the long run. Each collision with a moose, he said, costs the community $51,000. Assuming about 20 collisions a year, that means $1 million annually from just the one species of ungulate.
Economics aside, Mobeck said, the crossings are worth it simply to make good on the values, laid out in the Comprehensive Plan, to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem” and the wildlife that call it home.
“This is clearly an investment in the realization of the vision this community has set forth,” he said.
Even with an allocation of $15 million, though, the crossings will take time to build. Several people suggested officials find a way to divert a portion of that money to efforts that could be undertaken immediately to protect wildlife, such as fencing.
“We’ve got four years down the road before we start to solve this problem in a major way,” said Wes Gardner. “Let’s see if we can solve it in a minor way.”
Though wildlife crossings dominated the meeting, a handful of people came to show love for other items on the SPET ballot. Chief among them were a $4.4 million proposal to move the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum to the Genevieve block, and a $22 million expansion of the Teton County/Jackson Recreation Center.
“That place is bursting at its seams,” said David Ellerstein, who sits on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. “The equipment in there is antiquated. That place needs an overhaul and it needs more room.”
Ellerstein and others said upgrades to the Rec Center over the years have been “piecemeal,” never quite meeting the facility’s needs.
But some who consider wildlife crossings paramount, while acknowledging the importance of municipal projects like the Rec Center, argue that protections for animals should take precedence for one simple reason.
“At least those things can be pieced together,” Wandursky said. “The wildlife, once they’re gone, we can’t have a SPET to bring them back.”