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.