The pathway is closed from November 1 to April 30 to limit potential conflicts between pathway users and migrating elk in the fall, and to limit disturbance to elk and other wildlife by pathway users during the winter and early spring. Closing the pathway is the only way to ensure that the Elk Refuge's mission of "wildlife first" is respected and remains intact. If the pathway is deemed "incompatible" with the mission of the Elk Refuge, it would not be permitted on refuge property. The closure is part of the agreement between the Elk Refuge and Teton County for managing the pathway.
In the fall, starting as early as late October, elk migrate across the highway and search for the one-way openings in the Refuge fence. It is not uncommon to see individual elk or large herds searching back and forth along the fence. Experience has shown that even a vehicle parked along the highway is enough to cause elk to bolt, sometimes back across the highway. The presence of human pathway users during migration would likely cause elk to run back onto the highway and would place elk, pathway users, vehicles, and vehicle occupants at risk of a serious accident.
The impacts are slightly different in the winter and springtime for wildlife that have made it safely onto the refuge. By spring, elk and other wildlife on the refuge are struggling to conserve valuable energy and find feeding opportunities. While winter/spring wildlife are largely accustomed to vehicles on the highway, they are unaccustomed to people on foot or bicycle, and pathway use would cause animals to flee, further stressing their already depleted energy reserves. By the end of April the majority of animals have moved on and food sources are more plentiful. Studies to evaluate the impact of pathway use on wildlife are starting in fall 2011, which will help make future decisions on the management of the pathway.