Jackson Hole, WY News

Teton sheep

Wes Livingston attaches a GPS collar to a captured bighorn sheep ewe in the Teton Range in February 2008. A Tuesday night event will offer people the chance to hear from sheep experts about the small population that lives in the range.

Up in the air while counting elk, moose and other wintering wildlife last week, wildlife biologist Aly Courtemanch asked her pilot to buzz by the Tetons so she could check on the range’s remnant bighorn sheep.

The small herd, which migrates uphill to windswept ridges, was dealing with the worst conditions Courtemanch has ever seen — and she has studied the animals for many years, beginning with her graduate studies.

“It is rough up there,” the Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist said. “There are some windblown spots, but the patches are super small this year, and they’re surrounded by really deep snow.

“We’re definitely concerned that those sheep are really having a tough winter,” Courtemanch said. “The other thing I’m concerned about this year is the really unstable snowpack and avalanche danger. I suspect there’s going to be really high mortality from avalanches.”

The fact that a succession of snowstorms could do major damage is just one component of the Teton Bighorn Sheep Herd’s overall fragility. It’s isolated and limited to two small areas that animals don’t venture between. At just around 100 animals, the herd is small and susceptible to diseases that exotic mountain goats in the area carry. Generally, it’s worrisome for biologists who don’t want to see the herd disappear.

Grand Teton National Park recently proposed ridding the Tetons of the non-native mountain goats, which are relative newcomers, in order to give the bighorns a hoof up.

An expert panel will convene in Jackson this week to discuss the whole situation.

The event, “A Night with Teton Bighorn Sheep,” will take place from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Bridger-Teton National Forest headquarters building on North Cache Street. The first 45 minutes will be devoted to an introduction from the University of Wyoming’s Jessica Western, and a short presentation from Courtemanch and Grand Teton National Park biologist Sarah Dewey.

Afterward, the discussion will be turned over to panelists Tom Besser, Clinton Epps, Bob Garrott, Tom Lohuis, Hollie Miyaski, Kevin Montieth, Tom Stephenson and Peregrine Wolff. They’ll talk wild sheep ecology and offer insight into the Teton herd’s unique challenges, touching on genetics, disease, predation, climate change, nutrition, habitat and the concept of population restoration.

The event is free and open to the public.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067, env@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGenviro.

Mike Koshmrl has reported on Jackson Hole’s public lands and wildlife since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West a decade ago to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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(3) comments

Marion Dickinson

Do the goats pass disease to the sheep or do the sheep pass disease to the goats? 100 sheep is a fair sized herd isn't it? How many goats are there?

Mike Koshmrl Staff
Mike Koshmrl

Hi Marion, I'll try to answer those for you. The sheep herd has never been exposed to pathogens in the range that the goats are known to harbor, and to this point there has never been evidence of species-to-species transmission in the Tetons. I can't comment on the relative size of a 100-head bighorn sheep herd, but I can point out that the herd functions more as two 50-animal herds that are isolated and don't intermingle. Seems small to me. Biologists counted 88 goats this year, but estimated the population at over 100 to account for those they missed, and the herd has grown rapidly in the last 5 years. Hope this helps!

jeff muratore

There are no known cases that I can find where mountain goats caused bighorn die-offs. In fact in Nevada the evidence shows quite the opposite, sheep gave the pneumonia bacteria to the goats. If the Park Service aerial guns these goats, it will be a sad day.

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