It’s that time of year when winter sports enthusiasts flock to Jackson Hole for skiing and snowboarding. they’ll come by airplane and by car, traveling in comfort and ease for days, weeks or even months of outdoor recreation.There are other wintertime residents of Jackson Hole, but for them the trip into the valley is a matter of survival, not fun, and their journeys aren’t so easy.
Take the thousands of elk on the National Elk Refuge, for example.They’ve traveled a few miles or as many as 100 miles,moving down from summer habitat in the national forests surrounding Jackson, or from Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. In winter, the snow-pack at high elevations is too deep for them to find food.
With 97 percent of Jackson Hole’s land under government control as national parks and forests, it’s easy to assume that elk,mule deer, antelope and other key wildlife species still have plenty of room to roam between their winter and summer stomping grounds. But Jackson is part of a much bigger, scientifically important region, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the tiny 3 percent of land here that is privately owned is part of a network of critical migration corridors through the ecosystem. And while flight cancellations and winter highway closures might impede human travelers, development, and fences are what can stymie the animals.
“That 3 percent is some of the most visually spectacular,most productive and biologically important land,”, says Laurie Andrews, executive director of the Jackson Hole Land Trust. As the number of people in Jackson Hole grows, the risk is that this terrain “will be loved to death,” she said.
The Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, a national organization that works throughout the world,are on a mission to protect enough open space for the Yellowstone region’s wildlife to go where they need to go. Through conservation easements and other land-preservation tools, they are working acre by acre to protect important terrain from development. Part of their job is simply education.
“There’s a real lack of understanding,” says Paul Hansen, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Greater Yellowstone program.“Biologically speaking, the most important areas are not protected.”
Hansen and Andrews emphasize that people and wildlife can co-exist here, but it’s up to the human residents to proceed carefully.
“Animals can’t survive without suitable winter habitat, and it’s going away quickly here – at about six times the national average,” says Hanson.“We don’t care to stop development, but we really want to try to direct it away from the most important places for wildlife.’”
The Nature Conservancy’s ambitious plan is protect at least a million acres of Yellowstone regionland over the next 10 years. Outright purchases of land would require an unfathomably large amount of money, so the Conservancy, as well as the Land Trust,will continue trying to find a way to assist landowners who want to protect their land. “There really is a way, if we can develop intentionally and be aware of the biological value and set aside significant acreage we can provide for places for people to live while keeping intact that attributes that make them want to live here in the first place: the wildlife and the scenery,” Hansen says.
The elk will stay on the refuge until spring, when instinct will prompt them to leave for their summer homes.They know where they’re going, and they know how to get back. Whether they’ll be able to is up to us.