WYOMING: COKEVILLE MEADOWS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Site Location and Description
Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a 20-mile stretch of the Bear River and associated wetlands and uplands located south of Cokeville, Wyoming. This area possesses unique wetland values that support migratory and native populations of wildlife in numbers not found in any other location in the state. The purpose of Cokeville Meadows NWR is to preserve and protect wetland habitat for its waterfowl and other migratory bird values; for public education and interpretive values; and for public recreation values. With those features in mind, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service is continuing to seek protection of the area through acquisition of land to complete the Refuge. Currently 8,106 acres of the Refuge have been purchased or are protected through conservation easement. The remaining 18,551 acres still need to be acquired.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service first identified the concept of protecting habitat on the Bear River near Cokeville, Wyoming in 1978. In July 1987 the Service received the conditional support of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and the Lincoln County Commission to proceed with proposal for the area to become the Cokeville Meadows NWR.
It has been widely recognized in the natural resource community that wetland habitats are in short supply in this country and are being lost at a greater rate when compared to other wildlife habitats. Wetland and deepwater habitats represent the smallest percentage area of all wildlife habitat types in Wyoming and yet support the greatest density, diversity, and productivity of fauna to be found. Cokeville Meadows NWR is a prime example of the diverse species a wetland complex can support. Considered an Important Bird Area, at least 65 species of waterbirds have been observed in the area and 32 are recorded as nesting species. The endangered Bald Eagle commonly uses the area in spring and fall while foraging and the Whooping Crane has been an occasional summer visitor to the area. Peregrine Falcons are present during migration. Other wetland-associated species recognized for their uniqueness include colonies of White-faced Ibis and Snowy Egret, Long-billed Curlew, Black Tern, Great Blue Heron, American Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, and numerous other marsh and shorebirds.
In addition, Cokeville Meadows NWR was historically recognized as the best redhead duck production area in the state and is situated on one of the main migration corridors for the species in their movement to the Texas Gulf Coast. The area also supports numerous other diving and dabbling duck species and breeding and migratory populations of Greater Sandhill Cranes.
Maintenance of the riparian ecosystem associated with the Bear River, which bisects the Refuge, is critical for the support of the diverse wildlife populations present in the area. Over and above the needs of waterfowl and other wetland species associated with the riparian habitat, many upland and big game species depend on the water resources found in the area. Populations of Greater Sage-grouse, small mammals, deer, elk, and antelope also depend on the constant water supply the habitat provides.
Public Use and Benefit to the Community
The use by the public and other special interest groups of Cokeville Meadows NWR is under the regulation and control of the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act. The Service has plans to locate, identify, and appropriately mark approximately four miles of the Oregon National Historic Trail where it travels through the refuge. Features of the trail system will be incorporated into public interpretive programs. In addition, a visitor's center may be established to carry out public programs on the refuge. The Visitors Center could provide study sites, facilities, and active support for educational programs which focus on fish and wildlife resources and environmental problems. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service permits some hunting and sport fishing within the framework of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department regulations and additional federal regulations.
The oil and gas industry recognizes the area as a prime candidate for future development activities. The oil companies may make every effort to conduct environmentally safe operations, however, oil spill events such as the spill incidents occurring from recently deregulated collector lines in any of the western oil producing states including Wyoming, indicate that the wetland resources will always be threatened when in union with development of oil and gas resources.
In addition to development threats from industry, the agricultural and ranching practices of the region have continued to change as farm/ranch operations attempt to maintain their competitive edge with other sectors of the economy. Use of the land is being maximized in some cases for short-term gains to satisfy high loan obligations that resulted in the boom cycle in agriculture in the 1980s. Several ranching operations have undergone foreclosure actions or debt restructuring which lead to modified water flow regimes and habitat alterations. In addition, there is a trend towards placement of more center pivot irrigation systems for crop production, which adds to the depletion of ground water aquifers. Based on the above conditions, the Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized the need to protect these wetlands and wildlife resources while maintaining the natural character of the area.
The primary purposes for establishing Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) were to protect significant wetland resources and associated migratory bird species within a 26,657-acre block of riparian habitat in Lincoln County, Wyoming. The Final Environmental Impact Statement establishing Cokeville Meadows NWR was completed in June of 1992. In this document, land protection within the approved acquisition boundary was designated to be protected as follows: 20,436 acres fee title acquisition from private landowners (willing sellers only); 3,696 acres in conservation easements from private landowners; 1,477 acres purchased or exchanged with the State of Wyoming; and 1,048 acres purchased or exchanged with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
To date 6,417 acres have been acquired in fee from willing sellers and 1,689 acres have been protected through conservation easements. An additional 784 acres were protected with a FMHA easement, but are still designated for fee acquisition. To complete acquisition within the approved boundary, the Service needs to purchase in fee, purchase as easement, or exchange lands for the remaining 18,551 acres at an estimated cost of $9,587,000. This acreage consists of 14,642 acres from private landowners; 2007 acres of conservation easements; 1,477 acres from the State of Wyoming; and 1,048 acres from the BLM. As part of acquisition, water rights, and mineral rights would be purchased.
The public recognizes the uniqueness of the area and its wildlife values for wildlife viewing, hunting, and fishing. The area is recognized nationally for its historical values and segments of the Oregon Trail and the Sublette Cutoff occur within the acquisition boundary. The estimated statewide tourism benefit would be about $1.8 million annually. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Bureau of Land Management, The Nature Conservancy, and Audubon Wyoming fully support the Service in the acquisition of land to complete the refuge.
Local support varies, but generally there is concern about the transfer of private land to Federal ownership and possible implications to the local economy. In 2002, the Service established its first full-time position dedicated to Cokeville Meadows NWR. This position will help facilitate working with the community in the development of refuge programs and partnerships in addition to building local support.
Upland Sagebrush Community
Greater Sandhill Crane
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron