The decline of a rare and isolated bighorn sheep herd, high on the eroded granite slopes of the Teton Range, has long been a flashpoint in the perpetual balance between western wildlife and outdoor recreation .
Today, after years of collaboration and debate, a coalition of state and federal agencies has issued a series of recommendations, including limiting access to recreation, to protect iconic ungulates.
Not all stakeholders are satisfied.
Sheep earn their living in winter on thickets of dried grass and flowers near the ski touring trails dear to the locals.
Whenever the wary sheep see something – or someone – approaching, they retreat, burning valuable calories and abandoning their precious wintering grounds, the researchers say. Skiers may be just one of many factors impacting the sheep population, but they are one that can be managed, conservationists counter.
Backcountry users have argued, however, that although sheep do disperse on rare occasions when they notice skiers, other negative influences on the herd – habitat loss, invasive goats, air traffic – are surely much worse. In an age when more and more people want to ski in the Tetons, they say, land managers shouldn’t cut back on possible ski terrain.
And so the argument has gone, back and forth, for years. Everyone from biologists and land managers to skiers and wildlife advocates wanted a solution. Four years ago, the National Park Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and the US Forest Service got together with local user groups to find one.
The results were made public recently. The 100-page report contains only recommendations, officials say, including plans for habitat restoration and better public education. But he also advocates winter closures in the range of the bighorn sheep. And, depending on who you ask, the recommendations are either an unfortunate but necessary step to protect a rare herd, or an error that further slows down essential access to isolated land.
Most of those involved agree, however, that in an ever-populated West where these types of conflict between wildlife and humans are inevitable, the collaborative model provides a framework for finding a viable solution to a nearly impossible situation.
“Other places in the world are watching what’s going on here. I may be optimistic, but the things I see lead me to believe it is working, ”said Josh Metten, Teton Backcountry Alliance board member and professional naturalist. “We involve people from the ground up and learn from each other and work together instead of dividing… If we can’t do it in a national park, can we do it anywhere? We have to get it here.
Before European settlers, around 1.5 million Bighorn Sheep probably lived in the West. Today, around 85,000 live in isolated pockets. The dramatic decline was largely due to commercial hunting, habitat loss, and disease.
One of these isolated flocks is loosely referred to as the Teton Range Sheep Flock. These are technically two herds, one from the south and one from the north, with less than 130 animals between them. Biologists call the herd unique not only because it has persisted at high elevations – its members have been around 10,000 feet – but also because it does not drop in elevation in winter like most wildlife. It does the opposite. The Teton Range herd moves lightly up the mountain peaks in winter, where the wind blows the snow away, exposing thickets of vegetation.
The herd is probably a segment of a larger flock of sheep that historically migrated south into the lower elevations of Jackson Hole and Teton Valley Idaho in winter. The sheep that migrated eventually died, either from habitat loss, disease, or both. Animals that never came down to where the settlers lived survived.
And there they persisted.
Over the past decade, however, their numbers have plummeted, said Aly Courtemanch, a Wyoming and fish biologist in Jackson.
They face multiple issues including habitat loss from conifer encroachment – bighorn sheep need open spaces and don’t spend time in trees – competition for food from goats invasive mountain ranges and, increasingly, the disturbance caused by backcountry skiers.
Courtemanch’s mastery work focused on the interaction between the skiers and the Teton herd. What she found was that bighorn sheep not only moved when they saw off-piste skiers, but often abandoned their precious wintering grounds for long periods of time.
“We have very clear research that shows clear impacts of ski touring,” she said. “We have received reviews that the research was done 10 years ago, but over those 10 years we have seen an exponential increase in ski touring activity in the Tetons.”
The National Park Service is working with volunteer shooters and Game and Fish has granted licenses to slaughter mountain goats in the area, and land managers are also considering ways to improve habitat.
But finding a solution to the skier conflict proved more difficult.
In 2017, federal and state agencies formed a task force with residents to begin sorting out the problem. For about two years, they held one-on-one meetings, after which they held a series of public meetings and asked backcountry users to mark important trails on maps.
The end result contained dozens of recommendations, including the suggestion that the Park Service and Forest Service close just over 21,000 acres in winter to skiers to protect sheep.
While the number may seem large, Courtemanche says it only accounts for about 5% of “high value” ski terrain. “Conversely, 95% of the high-value ski areas identified would remain open,” says the report.
Some skiers, however, wonder who determined what was “of great value”.
“In my experience attending each in-person outreach meeting, the recommendations from the community were inconsistent with both what I observed and the feedback received from the ski community regarding the details of the high-value terrain. Jackson-area skier Elizabeth Koutrelakos wrote in an op-ed for the WildSnow recreation site. “For example, one person would say that a specific ski line was a Teton classic, while another person would say they have never skied that line.”
The recommendations also call for mandatory closings instead of voluntary closings. Many skiers agree that something should be done to help the sheep, although some question whether voluntary closures would be enough.
Perhaps skiers could check out a frequently updated website with sheep locations or depths of snow that let them know if a certain area is clear to ski or not, said Thomas Turiano, author and ski legend. and member of the board of directors of the Teton Backcountry Alliance.
“Then if the skiers don’t behave well, if the skiers are observed climbing thin covered slopes with a flock of sheep in the distance, there would be consequences,” he said. “Maybe it’s when the skiers behave in such a way that these areas are closed.”
About 68% of the recommended closures are in Grand Teton National Park, a location that already includes closures to protect other species, such as elk and grizzly bears, at certain times of the year.
“Our mission is to preserve and protect unspoiled wildlife, landscapes and natural and cultural resources for future generations, while providing access to people today,” said GTNP Superintendent Chip Jenkins. “When our subject matter experts, when our biologists, using good science, give us recommendations, we give it a lot of thought and deliberation. “
Most skiers and others involved in the effort applaud the process, although questions remain about the need for mandatory closings and the specific areas recommended for closure.
“The way they did it with the information they had and the time constraints, they did as well as they could have done,” said Turiano. “They received a lot of feedback and worked really hard to incorporate that feedback into the recommendations.”
The recommendations are just that, said Courtemanch. Wildlife and land management officials always want to hear from backcountry skiers and users. The suggested closures can be changed if necessary. Changes can be made.
If skiers and state and federal officials can come to a deal that primarily works for everyone, Metten, Turiano and others believe it could be a model for other thorny issues around wildlife and recreation.
Because, as most experts agree, these types of problems will only increase as outdoor recreation develops.
Colorado researchers report a decline in elk herds in areas like Vail due to increased summer recreation. A battle is brewing outside Lander over a proposed via ferrata and a possible conflict with peregrine falcons.
Recreation enthusiasts and recreation advocates in these regions all argue that the presence of humans in valuable habitat is not the greatest threat to wildlife. Wildlife supporters and biologists agree, but say humans are too late to tackle many other issues, such as housing and business development.
“It should have been thought 50 years ago,” Turiano said. “Now it seems, at least now, say the biologists, that only a few skiers can really bother the sheep… the sheep are on the verge of destruction, every little bit counts. Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time.
The Park Service is taking action on recommendations and working on next steps, Jenkins said. Land managers are already responding to calls from skiers who want to protect the sheep while enjoying the hinterland. Education of skiers and other users will be an important part of any outcome.
Any closure will need to go through a formal assessment process that includes a public assessment of the scope and public comment.
“We will be working to start this process this winter,” Jenkins said. “It will take time.
WyoFile is an independent, non-profit news organization focused on the people, places, and politics of Wyoming.