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Transitional Wildlife and Protected Properties

The National Elk Refuge (NER) began their supplemental feeding last week as counts on the 38 square mile refuge climbed above 6,000 animals. This early commencement of daily distribution of alfalfa pellets is partially attributed to the heavy December snowfall that the valley experienced. While the powder provided a boost to the general psyche of powder-hounds around town, ungulates continue their laborious efforts to pack in calories that will help sustain them through the long winter.

The NER is important for the elk in our portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Its location in the low elevation Flat Creek bottomland makes it ideal winter range, its proximity to federally managed lands provides buffered corridors for entry and exit, and the history of supplemental winter feeding attracts large numbers of elk accustomed to nutritional payoff for arriving on the property.

When you look at the Wyoming Game & Fish Department migratory and seasonal range data, it is clear that many of the areas where these animals summer require movement through private lands to get to the refuge. Animals coming to the NER from Yellowstone and the Yellowstone Thorofare pass through the Buffalo Valley; those from the Teton Range, through neighborhoods north of Jackson; and tracking data show connectivity from areas as far away as the Dunoir Valley in Fremont County and various points south of Jackson.

To get to the winter refuge of the NER, elk must pass through vital transitional habitat on the valley floor that is largely under private ownership. As is often the case in mountain communities, the places that humans find most desirable coincide with the places that wildlife find most habitable in the winter. The result is the twice yearly mass movement between high altitude summering grounds and low elevation winter habitats that plays-out through our backyards, across our roads, and in the places we recreate.

Protection of vital transitional habitat is something that conservation easements promote. The mission of the Jackson Hole Land Trust directs us to work with private landowners to perpetually preserve open space and the scenic, ranching and wildlife values of Jackson Hole. Agricultural working lands are wildlife habitat; large tracts of open space provide transitional habitat; and the amazing scenic vistas of unfragmented acreage on the valley floor allow migrating elk to more easily move with the seasons, in search of available forage.

As you pass by the National Elk Refuge this winter, bear in mind the distances that the animal masses have traveled to get there. And remember that viable elk populations are dependent on their ability to move through transitional habitat; habitat where you and I live, play and work.

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