Ski closures recommended in saga to protect Teton bighorns

WYOMING -- The decline of a rare, isolated bighorn sheep herd, high on the scoured granite slopes of the Teton Range has long been a flashpoint in the perpetual balancing act between western wildlife and outdoor recreation.

Now, following years of collaboration and debate, a coalition of state and federal agencies has issued a series of recommendations, including limiting recreational access, to protect the iconic ungulates. 

Not all stakeholders are happy. 

The sheep eke out a living in the winter on nubs of dried grass and flowers near backcountry ski routes cherished by locals. 

Every time the wary sheep see something — or someone — approach, they retreat, burning precious calories and abandoning valuable winter range, researchers say. Skiers may only be one of many factors impacting the sheep population, but they’re one that can be managed, wildlife advocates counter.

Backcountry users have argued, however, that even if the sheep scatter on rare occasions when they notice skiers, the other negative influences on the herd — habitat loss, invasive goats, airplane traffic — are surely much worse. At a time when more and more people want to ski in the Tetons, they say, land managers shouldn’t shrink possible skiing terrain. 

And so the argument went, 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 U.S. Forest Service gathered with local user groups to find one. 

The results were released recently to the public. The 100-page report contains only recommendations, officials say, including plans for habitat restoration and increased public education. But it also advocates for winter closures in the bighorn sheep’s range. And, depending on who you ask, the recommendations are either an unfortunate-but-necessary step to protect a rare herd, or a mistake that further winnows much-needed access to isolated terrain. 

Most people involved do agree, though, that in an ever-populated West where these kinds of wildlife-human conflicts are inevitable, the collaboration model provides a framework for finding a workable solution to a nearly impossible situation. 

“Other places in the world are watching what is happening here. I might be optimistic, but the things I’m seeing lead me to believe it’s working,” said Josh Metten, a member of the Teton Backcountry Alliance Steering Committee and professional naturalist. “We’re involving people from the ground up and learning from each other and working together instead of being divisive… If we can’t do it in a national park, can we do it anywhere? We have to get it right here.”

Before European settlers, about 1.5 million bighorn sheep likely lived across the West. Now about 85,000 inhabit isolated pockets. The dramatic decline was largely due to market hunting, habitat loss and diseases. 

One of those isolated herds is loosely referred to as the Teton Range sheep herd. It’s technically two herds, a southern one and northern one, with fewer than 130 animals between them. Biologists call the herd unique not just because it has persisted at high elevations — its members summer around 10,000 feet — but also because it doesn’t drop down in elevation in the winter like most wildlife. It does the opposite. The Teton Range herd shuffles slightly up to the sides of peaks in the winter where wind scours away the snow, exposing nubs of vegetation. 

The herd is likely a segment of a larger sheep herd that historically migrated south into the lower elevations of Jackson Hole and Teton Valley Idaho in the winter. The sheep that migrated eventually died off, either because of habitat loss or disease or both. The animals that never dropped down to where settlers lived survived. 

And there they persisted. 

Over the past decade, however, their numbers dropped, said Aly Courtemanch, a Wyoming Game and Fish biologist in Jackson. 

They face multiple problems, including habitat loss from conifer encroachment — bighorn sheep require open spaces and won’t spend time in trees — competition for food from invasive mountain goats, and, increasingly, disruption from backcountry skiers. 

Courtemanch’s master’s-degree work focused on the interplay between skiers and the Teton herd. What she found was that bighorn sheep not only moved when they saw backcountry skiers, but they often abandoned valuable winter range for long periods of time.

“We do have very clear research that shows clear impacts from backcountry skiing,” she said. “We have gotten some criticism that the research was done 10 years ago, but within those 10 years, we’ve seen an exponential increase in backcountry skiing activity in the Tetons.”

The National Park Service is working with volunteer shooters and Game and Fish has given licenses to cull mountain goats from the area, and land managers are also considering ways to improve habitat. 

But finding a solution to the skier conflict has proved trickier. 

In 2017, federal and state agencies formed a working group with locals to begin sorting through the issue. For about two years, they held one-on-one meetings, after which they ran a series of public meetings and asked backcountry users to mark important trails on maps. 

The final outcome had dozens of recommendations including the suggestion that the Park Service and Forest Service close a little more than 21,000 acres in the winter to skiers to protect the sheep. 

While the number may appear significant, Courtemanch says it amounts to only about 5 percent of “high value” ski terrain. “Conversely, 95 percent of identified high value ski terrain would remain open,” the report states.

Some skiers, though, are questioning who determined what was “high value.” 

“From my experience attending every in-person outreach meeting, the community recommendations were incongruent both with what I observed and the feedback received from the ski community regarding the details of high value terrain,” wrote Jackson-area skier Elizabeth Koutrelakos in an op-ed for recreation site WildSnow. “For example, one person would state a specific ski line was a Teton classic, while another person would say that they never skied that line.”

The recommendations also call for mandatory closures instead of voluntary ones. Many skiers agree that something should be done to help the sheep, though some wonder if voluntary closures would be sufficient. 

Perhaps skiers could check a website updated frequently with sheep locations or snow depths that lets them know if a certain area is clear to ski or not, said Thomas Turiano, an author, skiing legend and board member of the Teton Backcountry Alliance. 

“Then if skiers aren’t behaving well, if skiers are observed touring up thin-covered slopes with a bunch of sheep in the distance, there would be consequences,” he said. “It may be when skiers behave like that these areas would get closed.”

About 68 percent of the recommended closures are in Grand Teton National Park, a place that already includes closures to protect other species, such as elk and grizzly bears, during certain times of the year.

“Our mission is to preserve and protect the wildlife and the scenery and the natural and cultural resources unimpaired for future generations, while at the same time providing access for people today,” said GTNP Superintendent Chip Jenkins. “When our subject matter experts, when our biologists, using good science, make recommendations to us, we give those a lot of thought and a lot of deliberation.” 

Most skiers and others involved in the effort applaud the process, even if questions remain about the need for mandatory closures and the specific areas recommended for closure. 

“The way they did it with what information they had available and time constraints, they did as good as they could have done,” Turiano said. “They got a lot of input and really worked hard to assimilate that input into recommendations.”

The recommendations are just that, Courtemanch said. Wildlife and land-management officials still want to hear from skiers and backcountry users. Suggested closures can be modified if needed. Changes can be made. 

If skiers and state and federal officials can come to an agreement that mostly works for everyone, Metten, Turiano and others think this could be a model for other thorny wildlife and recreation issues. 

Because, as most experts agree, those types of issues will only increase as outdoor recreation grows.

Researchers in Colorado are reporting drops in elk herd numbers in areas like Vail because of increased summer recreation. A battle has been brewing outside Lander over a proposed via ferrata and possible conflict with peregrine falcons. 

Recreationists and recreation advocates in those areas all argue that the presence of humans in valuable habitat is not the biggest threat to wildlife. Wildlife proponents and biologists agree, but say humans are too late to fix many other issues, such as housing and commercial development. 

“That should have been thought of 50 years ago,” Turiano said. “Now it appears, at least now the biologists are saying, that just a few skiers can really disturb the sheep … the sheep are at such a brink of destruction, every little bit counts. We can’t go back in time, unfortunately.”

The Park Service is taking the suite of recommendations and working on next steps, Jenkins said. Land managers are already fielding calls from skiers who want to protect the sheep but still enjoy backcountry terrain. Educating skiers and other users will be a big component of any outcome. 

Any closures will need to go through a formal evaluation process including public scoping and public comment. 

“We will be working to start that process this winter,” Jenkins said. “It will take us some time.”

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