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National Elk Refuge charts course for next 20 years

JACKSON, Wyoming (KIFI)- We can all relate to the task of trying to plan for the future. It can be one of the hardest tasks we undertake. Now imagine you are a part of a project that needs to plan 20 years into the future.

You'll also need to determine the impact on the environment and thousands of wildlife. The National Elk Refuge is undertaking that process right now.

"We started what's called a structured decision-making process. And that's a science-based process used to try to tease out, some potential alternatives that we could present to the public moving forward. And so that process has been started. It's still ongoing. In our recent public information sessions, we released those potential proposed alternatives," Frank Durbian, the project manager for the National Elk Refuge, said.

Recent public meetings gave the refuge some insights into the values the public shared with them regarding the future of the refuge.

"It's very obvious that just like us, the public values a healthy, sustainable elk herd. We may all differ a little bit on how we define that, but I think in general, the public wants that. They want the recreational opportunities that come with having a healthy and sustainable elk herd, and also the economics that are associated with that, and everything from economics associated with hunting to guiding and outfitting to wildlife viewing and guiding, they value all of those things. And so that's what we're working with in terms of the analysis moving forward, how can we minimize the impact to those as we move forward with trying to figure out if the best alternative moving forward?" Durbian said.

One of the things being considered is how much feed the herd needs to keep the animals healthy.

The Elk Refuge has been feeding elk in the Jackson area since the early twentieth century. The refuge may have originally started as an only elk range, but over the years things have changed.

"We feed, on average about 7,400 elk and about 500 bison annually," Durbian said.

Disease is always a concern for the animals, especially Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). The last time CWD was detected in the herd was in 2020.

"We could look to try to minimize or reduce the impacts that chronic wasting disease may have on the herd. And so that's kind of the initial basis of this planning process is looking at disease and its impacts. And what we can do moving forward to try to minimize do those impacts we fully understand," Durbian said.

Durbian said the plan has to find ways to reduce the ripple effect.

"The actions we take on the refuge are also going to have an impact. Impacts well outside of the refuge. So we're doing everything we can to gather information and analyze that moving forward. So we're doing everything we can to gather information and analyze that moving forward," Durbian said.

Currently the planning is taking place internally, as they sort all of the information they've gathered and try to move forward into the next stage of the process. They say the next time the public can give input will be in a year when they present the draft of the plan.

"Over the course of the next year, we'll be drafting ideas. And then once that's done, we will release that out to the public for public viewing and public comments. And we look forward to receiving as much information and comment from the public during that time period as possible, so we can do our best to incorporate their thoughts and values into the plan moving forward," Durbian said.

Durbian adds that the Refuge's first priority is the wildlife, but the refuge belongs to everybody, and everyone is welcome to come out and enjoy the wildlife on the refuge.

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Braydon Wilson

Braydon is a reporter for Local News 8.

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