Steve Kallin arrived in Jackson in the winter of 2007 to visit the National Elk Refuge as he considered taking the job of its manager. He’d already spent almost 30 years working at National Wildlife Refuges from the upper peninsula of Michigan to Montana’s National Bison Range.
The scenery in Jackson stunned Kallin before he even reached the refuge. The view from there sealed the deal.
“I saw thousands of elk and hundreds of bison and it was just really intriguing,” he said. He took the job.
On Jan. 3, Kallin is retiring after almost a decade in the post, where he dealt with controversial diseases like brucellosis and Chronic Wasting Disease.
Kallin, 60, grew up in Wisconsin where he learned to hunt and his love of animals flourished on his grandfather’s farm. He went on to earn a degree in wildlife management from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
In his decade as manager, he worked with the community in Jackson to build a bike path that bordered the elk refuge. He managed the first refuge bison hunt. He oversaw installation of a system that increased irrigation from about 900 acres to more than 4,000 acres a year, a project meant to disperse the animals on the refuge to better protect them from disease.
“Chronic Wasting Disease is a deadly disease that is marching ever-closer to the elk refuge,” Kallin said. “It’s been found within 35-40 miles of the refuge in two locations.”
The disease is known to impact deer herds more than elk. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a concern, especially at the refuge, where each year thousands of elk congregate and disease could easily spread. The refuge sponsored its first Chronic Wasting Disease forum this year, bringing together agencies, conservation organizations and outfitters.
“I think we have to take it seriously,” Kallin said. “It’s an always-fatal disease and it’s true that it does not seem to affect elk herds as quickly as it does deer herds. It appears to be more slow moving in elk.
“Is it a concern? It really depends on what time-horizon you are looking at. In the short term, this is a slow moving disease and likely won’t have much impact on the population. But if you look at it long-term, and having infected elk brought to the same location every year, that may have the potential of concentrating the disease and making it worse.
CWD will arrive
“We can’t prevent the disease from arriving,” Kallin said. “It likely will be here at sometime. And there is no vaccination or antidote or anything like that. One of the few things that can be done, is instead of having animals in one place, it may be beneficial to spread them out. The prions, or the infectious agents, are shed by infected animals and can contaminate the ground and vegetation in those areas.”
Spreading out the elk isn’t an easy task at the refuge, where the animals congregate each year for supplemental feeding. Changes in feeding are controversial. Some people feel feeding the animals puts them at risk for diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease which can spread easily in the close quarters at the refuge. Others want feeding to continue. They say the animals will starve if the refuge suddenly stopped the supplemental feeding and that Chronic Wasting Disease isn’t an issue for the elk population.
Kallin said he sees these as “two false choices.”
“There are ways to take more of a measured, long-term approach to supplemental feeding and help disperse the animals a little more in the winter,” he said.
This polarizing issue of supplemental feeding is the biggest challenge the refuge and community will face in the future, he said.
“We need some way that we start moving in a direction that results in a healthier situation that doesn’t put the animals in as much jeopardy in terms of disease,” he said.
He doesn’t advocate an end to feeding, or a reduction in the number of elk, but said the animals have to be better dispersed.
As that happens, the refuge will need to work with livestock producers who worry about brucellosis, a disease that doesn’t significantly impact the bison or elk herds, but can be a serious problem for livestock. Kallin said efforts have been focused on making sure the elk herd and domestic livestock don’t mingle. To do that, however, feeding has to start early enough to keep the elk on the refuge.
“As we look at dispersing those herds, we absolutely have to consider and work with livestock producers to ensure that their interests are not jeopardized,” he said.
Kallin is used to controversy in every management decision on the refuge. It’s part of working in the Jackson area, where people are passionate and opinionated.
“There are things that are controversial in Jackson that in most places wouldn’t be an issue,” he said. A recently proposed wildlife viewing platform, which Kallin said will have no impact on the animals or habitat, outraged some people.
Shortly after Kallin leaves, President-elect Trump will take office. Kallin said he doesn’t know how that will impact the refuge, but he chooses to be hopeful. Some of the biggest expansions and improvements in the refuge system came under Republican administrations, he said.
With almost 5 million visitors a year, the elk refuge is the second most-visited site in the refuge system. It needs new infrastructure to meet visitor demands. Kallin said he hopes the administration, with its emphasis on infrastructure, will view the refuge’s projects favorably and allocate funding.
“I just don’t share the doom and gloom that some folks are predicting from a refuge standpoint,” he said.
His one fear for the refuge is more budget cuts. After years of a flat or declining budget, the refuge operates with a staff size of about 40 percent what is needed to run such a complex refuge, he said.
“I’d hate to see additional cuts because we’ve been cut to the bone for so many years,” he said.
After Kallin’s last day he plans to stay in Jackson. And while he might be gone officially from staff, he knows he’ll regularly visit the refuge.
“How could you not visit such a spectacular area right in your backyard?,” he asked.