Paul Hansen

Paul Hansen

Can Jackson Hole live in harmony with our spectacular landscape and its resident flora and fauna?

As our community grows and tourism increases, it is proving to be difficult. Overall, we are certainly not doing nearly enough and can do more without hurting our tourism-based economy.

On Sept. 25 the News&Guide released its fourth conservation magazine, Headwaters, with essays and articles that explore that question.

Our direct impacts on wildlife are pretty dire. We can document about 350 large animals killed on our roads most years, but the actual number is probably much higher.

Most of the national data indicate that for every animal found dead on the road another one to two animals stagger off and die in the bush. Plus, there are some species we do not count.

So, we probably kill close to a thousand mammals each year on Teton County roads. We have known about the wildlife carnage on our highways for years and have not yet taken effective action.

A good part of the problem with wildlife vehicle collisions is the rapid increase in traffic. In 2017, motor vehicles traveled 592 million miles in Teton County. That surpassed our 2035 goal of 560 million miles 18 years ahead of schedule.

Recently, wildlife crossings and fencing were added to the rebuild on Highway 89/191 south of Jackson in the hope of reducing wildlife mortality. For the first time the 2019 specific purpose excise tax ballot asks voters to approve funding for reducing wildlife vehicle collisions.

Concerned Citizens for Elk and other groups have suggested lower speed limits at known hot spots for elk, moose and deer crossings. When we lowered speeds by only 5 mph on Broadway between Scott Lane and Pearl Avenue, fewer deer were killed crossing from the butte to Karns Meadow.

Other large wildlife are killed by becoming tangled in fences. Eagles are killed by lead fragments in hunting gut piles, osprey are killed when tangled in baling twine, and bears are killed after being fed human food.

Some of the birds of prey that are injured by human activity are treated at the Teton Raptor Center. Last year the Raptor Center handled 117 birds, including 21 species. About 60% of the injured birds can be saved; about 35% recover enough to be returned to the wild.

Elk have been heavily affected by year-round human presence in Jackson Hole. This valley was once almost entirely winter habitat for elk. Today only the National Elk Refuge and a few smaller spots provide elk with the natural winter habitat they need.

We have tried to compensate for that and prevent large die-offs by feeding elk, but that comes with its own problems from increased disease. Elk Refuge managers must walk a fine line between some members of the public who want elk to be fed, versus others who have used the courts to try to get managers to stop feeding the animals One thing seems clear: A smaller, more dispersed herd will be more resistant to disease.

One of the most fascinating parts of this year’s Headwaters magazine is the description of the natural park wilderness that exists in our night skies. We are among only 20% of Americans who get to see the Milky Way.

Light pollution in Jackson Hole is eroding that ability. Our outdoor lighting ordinances have proved ineffective. We are behind other mountain towns like Breckenridge, Colorado, and Whitefish, Montana, where there are stronger lighting ordinances. Ketchum, Idaho, is “dark sky certified.”

On the critical issue of climate change we are also falling behind other mountain towns, such as Aspen, Colorado, where emissions dropped by over 7% from 2004 to 2014. Nationwide, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by 9% in the past 10 years. In Teton County our emissions have increased by a whopping 17%.

Coexistence with nature in Jackson Hole remains an elusive goal.

Paul W. Hansen is a lifelong conservationist and former employee of the Izaak Walton League, Nature Conservancy and Murie Center. Columns are solely the opinion of their authors. Contact him via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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