Cokeville Meadows: Wildlife Refuge strives to provide habitat
Cokeville – Beginning in 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) established the Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
Centered on a 20-mile stretch of the Bear River, the refuge is associated with wetlands and uplands and is managed as a satellite of the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, which sits 75 miles to the east in Sweetwater County.
Importance of the refuge
“Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect wetland and riparian habitat associated with the Bear River that is important to a diversity of migratory birds,” says the FWS on their website.
With less than five percent of Wyoming’s land area functioning as wetland, FWS marks making wetland communities within the state as important to wildlife.
“The heart of the refuge is the mosaic of wet meadows and cattail and bulrush sloughs,” adds FWS. “Many of these wetlands were originally created and maintained by agricultural practices.”
The area was also nominated as an important bird area by Audubon Wyoming.
The wetlands associated with Bear River are both natural and human made, according to FWS, with natural wetlands flooding as a result of high water events following spring snowmelts.
Irrigation systems creating runoff in the 1930s and 40s have also resulted in persistent wetlands, and diversion dams in the Bear River create irrigation opportunities that support hay production from the native meadows.
New and expanding
Cokeville Meadows is a relatively new wildlife refuge, but the FWS marks it as a growing endeavor. The area was identified as the number one priority in the Bear River Focus Area Plan for the Inter-Mountain West Joint Venture.
“While the approved acquisition boundary for the Refuge totalling 26,657 acres, only 9,259 acres have been purchased or protected through conservation easements to date,” says the Refuge’s website. “Newly acquired lands are posted with boundary signs and evaluated for a variety of factors.”
According to the FWS, land acquisition is ongoing from willing sellers only.
Because it is newly established, the Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is currently not open to public use.
“However, over the next several years, Refuge staff will begin public planning processes that may open Refuge lands to a variety of public uses, such as wildlife viewing, interpretation, fishing, hunting, environment education and photography,” adds FWS.
While much of the refuge is closed, the Netherly Slough Wildlife Viewing Area provides informational displays and wildlife viewing from a roadside area off of Highway 30.
With local ranchers and Refuge managers working together, a number of efforts are being pursued to increase the productivity and viability of the land.
“Under Special Use Permits, local ranchers and Refuge managers mutually benefit by working cooperatively to reach Refuge habitat goal and projects goals,” says the Refuge website. “Ranchers assist Refuge staff with irrigation of wet meadows and other wetlands, maintenance of ditches and other irrigation facilities, providing food plots for wildlife and maintenance of vigor of wet meadow vegetation through selective haying.”
Efforts for weed control, conversion of marginal cropland to permanent native vegetation and other projects, including refuge cleanups, fence maintenance and construction are ongoing as well.
The website adds, “In exchange, ranchers receive hay, crop and grazing shares.”
“This management regime maintains the vigor of wet meadows and other vegetation that critical for wildlife,” continues the FWS.
Close efforts with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department have also provided Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge to identify and achieve management goals and objectives, as well as to conduct annual wildlife inventories.
FWS says the Refuge supports one of the highest densities of nesting waterfowl in Wyoming, with at least 32 water bird species affected.
“It has excellent potential for the reintroduction of trumpeter swans and provides habitat for resident species, including greater sage grouse, mule deer, elk and pronghorn,” the organization adds.
Other species on the refuge include White-faced Ibis, Black Tern, sandhill cranes, black-necked stilts, American bitterns and a variety of waterfowl, marsh and shorebirds.
Despite the fact that the facility isn’t yet available for public access, Refuge staff is available to conduct both off-site education and off-site interpretive programs for students or other groups on request.
The Refuge office is located at the Seedskadee national Wildlife Refuge and is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.