Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming.

Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is a relatively new addition to the public lands of Wyoming. In 1992 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed the studies and assessments needed to fulfill NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act of 1969) requirements to start a wildlife refuge. The first land purchase from a private rancher in 1994 officially established Cokeville Meadows as a unit within the National Wildlife Refuge System. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was authorized to acquire up to 27,000 acres within the Bear River Valley south of Cokeville to the Utah border. Today the refuge has grown to just under 6,500 acres of wet meadows, riparian area, farm ground and sagebrush uplands. These acres are managed primarily for wildlife, with other uses - such as hunting, hiking, wildlife observation, interpretation, and wildlife photography being allowed as long as those uses are compatible with or help us achieve wildlife habitat goals. Another 2,800 acres are held in conservation easements, which will preserve the land as a working landscape and ensure its value as open space remain available to wildlife.            

The value of the wildlife habitat provided along the Bear River through Lincoln County is top notch waterbird habitat for Wyoming. This type of shallowly flooded wet meadow and semi-permanent water habitat might not have been so extensive had it not been for the area's early settlers, who build the extensive water delivery system. Dave Lockman explained it best in his 1984 paper which assessed wetland wildlife values along the Bear River in Lincoln County, Wyoming.  

“Prior to development of the water conveyance systems, it was surmised that the zone of seasonal flooding was much less than that observed today. Based on flow data from more recent years, flooding from the Bear River channel occurred for only a short time in late May through mid-June in most years.  A high water table and short periods of flooding probably resulted in extensive acres of alkali flats dominated by greasewood, saltgrass, and basin wild rye.

Following the development of the conveyance systems, the period of seasonal flooding was extended from late April through early July in most normal run-off years. The extent of seasonally flooded acres was also increased to include all land between the conveyance systems and the river. Extending the period of flooding allowed the encroachment of extensive stands of native and nonnative perennial rushes and sedges and prevented the build-up of surface alkalinity. The high water table on the relatively broad and level floodplain prevented tillage and planting of domestic crops.  The native rush and nonnative tame grass communities provide palatable late summer and fall forage for livestock. Today, when the river level drops by early July, ranchers stop taking water into most of the canal systems and let the water leave the flooded acres largely through evapo-transpiration.  By mid- to late July and early August haying equipment is moved onto the extensive seasonally flooded acreages and the forage is harvested for winter livestock feed.  In most years about 70% of the seasonally flooded acres become dry enough to harvest for hay. The canal systems have a relatively level gradient and hold water into the fall and, in some areas, year long. Therefore, the semi-permanent water conditions in the canals and associated impounded areas are conducive to the development of tall emergent communities, and open water areas produce luxurious growth of rooted aquatic vegetation.  Livestock graze some of the cut emergent communities in the fall/winter; however, some years many of the acres are reflooded in the fall.”

The habitat around the Bear River south of Cokeville was greatly improved for water birds because of the irrigation infrastructure the local farmers and ranchers built in the 1880s and early 1900s to effectively move water across the flat open valley.  This type of irrigation, called flood irrigation, provides ideal feeding and nesting habitat for many water birds. The shallowly flooded meadows and farmed small grains and alfalfa provide important food for migrating birds - especially waterfowl and Sandhill cranes during their flights north in the spring and south in the fall.  During the late spring and early summer, the large expanses of wetlands provide ideal areas for secretive marsh birds (such as the American bittern, sora, Virginia rail and pied-billed grebe) and colonial nesting birds (like Franklin's gulls, black terns, white-faced ibis and black-crowned night herons) to build nests and raise their young. Many other waterbirds such as ducks, geese, coots, cranes and great blue herons call the meadows home as well, more than 70 species.  Pronghorn antelope, elk, deer and the occasional moose can often be seen in the valley too. 

Nearby Activities


To reach the Refuge, travel south from Cokeville, Wyoming, on State Highway 30. The acquisition boundary of Cokeville Meadows NWR begins about one mile south of Cokeville, Wyoming and continues 16 miles to the south. Highway 30 forms the eastern acquisition boundary of the Refuge. Non-contiguous Refuge lands are located within this acquisition boundary intermingled by tracts of private land. There are currently no visitor facilities located on the Refuge.

Additional Information