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The Flat Creek Riparian Survey
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND In the spring of 1997 Mr. Barry Reiswig, manager of the National Elk Refuge, made the decision to prepare a Riparian Survey of Flat Creek. Resource specialists, the authors, from the staff of the Bridger-Teton National Forest were contracted to conduct the survey. For many years the National Elk Refuge staff have been taking steps to improve the vegetative condition of the Refuge. Prescribed burning takes place when conditions are favorable and improvements to the irrigation system have been made. Further irrigation improvements are being considered at this time. The riparian survey of Flat Creek is yet another step toward the overall goal of improved vegetation on the National Elk Refuge. The riparian survey provides a description of the existing vegetation and the condition of the vegetation as well as the soils, hydrology and fisheries habitat. In combination with future studies of the range condition the riparian survey will allow the Refuge staff to develop plans for management of the Refuge vegetation. The riparian survey and later range condition survey should provide a good foundation for the overall Refuge management planning which has been authorized by recent congressional legislation. The riparian fringe of Flat Creek has changed considerably in the past century. Although one can only speculate, it seems likely that prior to settlement by the early ranchers the impact of browsing by the ungulate wildlife, principally elk, was considerably less than since the founding of the National Elk Refuge. This conclusion is offered due to the historic pattern of a considerable number of Jackson Hole elk in their annual fall migration out of the valley and into the upper Green River Basin. As ranching made less and less winter range available, more elk remained in Jackson Hole leading to the establishment of the National elk Refuge and confinement of the elk on the Refuge proper during the late fall/winter/early spring months. But the elk were not the only cause in the changes to Flat Creek. The first ranchers and their successors brought cattle into the area and dug miles of irrigation ditches fed by Flat Creek. Much later another grazing animal was added to the population inhabiting the Refuge at various times throughout the year - the bison. The small bison herd which had been fenced in at Grand Teton Park escaped and over the years expanded their population greatly as they ranged throughout the valley of Jackson Hole. So for the past thirty years the riparian zone of Flat Creek has experienced browsing and grazing pressure from the elk, moose, bison, and mule deer somewhat in that order of importance. All these animals and the changing land use over the past 80 to 90 years have produced the Flat Creek riparian environment we see today. And it gives one pause to realize that the cottonwood trees along the upper stream course of Flat Creek are living on borrowed time. As will be discussed in more detail the lack of cottonwood reproduction ensures that in 50 to 100 years those trees bordering Flat Creek will be evident only as partially decomposed logs with just historical photographs to record their previous existence.
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