Trumpeter swans a concern after Elk Refuge gets go ahead for a new visitor center

A trumpeter swan and its cygnet swim upstream along a frigid Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Cali O'Hare, Managing Editor Sublette Examiner and Pinedale Roundup.

JACKSON —Though a prominent trumpeter swan biologist has reservations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave the National Elk Refuge the green light to move ahead with plans for a new visitor center north of Jackson.

The Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center serves as a critical part of the visitor experience, intercepting thousands of people as they come into town from the national parks or depart northward. It is staffed by people representing the Elk Refuge, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. And it contains interpretive exhibits and a bookstore run by the Grand Teton Association.

How and when the new visitor center will be built will in part depend on funding.

Visitor Services Manager Raena Parsons said the National Elk Refuge has received $11.6 million from the Great American Outdoors Act, which passed in 2020, that it will earmark for the project. But preliminary designs and cost estimates put the total cost of building a new visitor center at $22 million — a roughly $10 million gap.

But Parsons said the Elk Refuge can’t go out and advocate for that funding because it’s part of the federal wildlife refuge system.

“We would need a group of citizens working together independently to go through the process,” she said.

Susan Patla, a biologist who recently retired but previously led the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wild swan program, cautioned that plans for reconnecting some area wetlands to Flat Creek tributaries might impact trumpeter swan populations that dwell on the marsh near the visitor center. 

Trumpeter swans were hunted for their skins and quills, and by the early 1900s, Patla said, their North American population fell to 69 animals, with most of the population nesting in Yellowstone National Park. A few birds were brought to Jackson Hole in 1938, and Patla said the National Elk Refuge has since been key to the swans’ reproduction.

“There’s been more swans produced there than any other place in Teton County,” Patla said.

Stacy Armitage, the Colorado-based assistant regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, signed in June a “finding of no significant impact” for the Elk Refuge’s plans, meaning the agency does not have to go through a more in-depth environmental impact statement to build the new visitor center.

The refuge says building anew is necessary because of a plethora of problems with the existing center, which is more than 40 years old. Deficiencies with electrical, phone and internet systems, annual flooding in the crawl space and rotted wood in a viewing platform facing the refuge — as well as increasing visitation to the center that serves roughly 320,000 people a year — have led federal officials to try to replace the building nine times between 1965 and 2007. This is the 10th, Parsons said.

Funds to reconstruct the facility wouldn’t be available until 2025, though Parsons said officials hope having the environmental assessment complete now could allow the Elk Refuge to access money earlier.

The new designs could see the visitor center’s footprint expanded from 7,100 to 15,000 square feet, and the building relocated north of the existing site. Its existing footprint would be redeveloped as a parking area with 60 spots for cars and three to five spots for RVs and buses, a 30% increase over the current parking area.

Parsons hopes the new designs will make the visitor center more accessible for people in wheelchairs. Concerned about cyclists and other pathway users deterring mule deer and other wildlife from using a nearby migratory route, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shot down requests for a bike path on-site.

The Elk Refuge also plans to enhance wetland habitat in the area, though Parsons said that’s still under review because the refuge needs to look into water rights issues in the area. 

Still, federal officials are envisioning reconnecting artificial ponds at the northern end of what the Elk Refuge calls the Murie Family Park — green space north of the visitor center that’s frequented by tourists and geese — to their historic Flat Creek tributaries. That’s part of a suite of changes Elk Refuge officials plan that would generally expand willow and cottonwood stands in the area and replace planted grass in the area with wetland and upland meadows similar to what’s found elsewhere on the refuge. Boardwalks would allow visitors to cross the vegetation.

“Right now it feels very much like a city park,” Parsons said. “We’re interested in turning it back into more of a natural habitat to provide wildlife and people more of a refuge experience there.”

Plans for the center and the wetland area have addressed some wildlife watchers’ concerns, including those of Bernie McHugh, who said, among other things, that he wanted to see Bert’s Bench, which commemorates the late naturalist Bert Raynes, incorporated into the designs. It was. McHugh said he’d be interested in fundraising for installing interpretive materials in the new visitor center, particularly if they’re about birds.

But Patla said the ponds the Elk Refuge wants to reconnect to Flat Creek “provide some important early season foraging habitat for swans.”

She said she hadn’t had a chance to review the full environmental assessment before speaking with the News&Guide. And on one point, she and the environmental assessment agreed: Some swans that nest northeast of the Murie Family Park eat and rest in artificial ponds.

Patla said that primarily happens in the spring, when the birds, recognized as a “species of greatest conservation need” by the state of Wyoming, rely on shallow, aquatic vegetation as a food source.

That food source is key to their reproduction, Patla said.

The environmental assessment says that demolition and construction will likely impact swans.

“Demolition, construction, and restoration activities may result in minor, temporary, and negligible disturbance to trumpeter swans,” it reads.

Patla, however, wasn’t so worried about temporary disturbances.

“Swans are long-lived, and so they can adjust to some disturbances,” she said.

But she did question whether restoring Flat Creek flows to those ponds could disturb the swans long term.

“It depends on how they design that creek,” she said. “If it’s designed to be wide enough so there’s not a fast current in the area and provides shallow water vegetation, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

“But what’s of interest is what’s the total amount of foraging habitat before and after,” Patla said.

The environmental assessment doesn’t address long-term impacts to the swans.

Bill Long, of the Wyoming Wetlands Society, which partners with landowners in the area to provide habitat for trumpeter swans in their ponds, said he, like Patla, hadn’t been able to read the full assessment.

But he said if the visitor center remains on the same footprint and the wetland restoration is “done properly,” it could “potentially reinvigorate that wetland.”

Patla said she wants to see swan forage maintained in the long term.

“I would hope if they end up eliminating that they do some mitigation and provide some habitat elsewhere on the refuge,” she said. “If there was an opportunity to improve habitat for swans, they should take it.”

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