The Bridger-Teton National Forest is assessing whether to double the number of user days allotted to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski guides who lead clients out of bounds into the backcountry.
The proposal, which stems from a November 2018 request from the resort, would increase the number of skier days permitted from 1,200 annually to 2,400. It’s limited to 2,146 acres of terrain south and west of the resort boundaries, and would not affect the 50 annual user days that resort ski guides have available to take clients out onto 1,874 acres of terrain on the slopes of Teton Pass.
“For over 10 years, JHMR has had so much demand for guided backcountry skiing that it would typically use all 1,200 user days by February or early March,” Bridger-Teton National Forest officials wrote in a “scoping document” outlining the plans.
For the past seven winters, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has pulled from “pool days” left over from a sparsely used High Mountain Heli Skiing permit once its own permitted days were exhausted, the document says. Those pool days would not be affected by the decision, which is expected this June and would take effect in time for the 2020-21 ski season.
In the meantime, the Bridger-Teton has invited the public to weigh in. Comments are due by Friday. Find instructions on how to submit them at FS.USDA.gov/project/?project=57618.
The resort’s backcountry permit extends from Rock Springs south to Jensen Canyon and Rendezvous Peak proper. One “topic of interest” identified in the Bridger-Teton’s proposal is the presence of a small group of bighorn sheep that winters on windswept ridgelines and meadows at the far southern edge of the guided permit area.
“The place that the Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group is concerned about is the peak proper,” Bridger-Teton staff wildlife biologist Jason Wilmot told the Jackson Hole Daily. “It doesn’t get much skiing use, but it gets some.”
Research headed by Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Aly Courtemanch suggests that the high-quality habitat farther north, closer to the resort backcountry gates, is essentially devoid of the native sheep because of the high density of skiing activity.
Currently, guided skiing accounts for a small portion — approximately 7% — of the backcountry activity in the area.
The guided skiing proposal comes at a time when the community is attempting to craft policy to protect the Tetons’ resident sheep herd, isolated and small enough in size that it’s considered at risk of extirpation. Recent genetic research suggests that just 40 sheep hang onto existence in the southern Tetons; another 60 or so animals reside farther north.
There are skeptics of the proposal.
Longtime resident and environmentalist Franz Camenzind said he was disappointed that the forest didn’t do more to publicize it, given the high-profile nature of the Teton sheep issue.
“They didn’t seem to distribute this very well, which makes me wonder and suspicious in my old age,” Camenzind said. “That’s a concern I have: the transparency of this process.”
Camenzind also worried for Rendezvous Mountain’s remaining sheep, and he doubts the forest is studying the issue as carefully as it ought to.
The Bridger-Teton is advancing its plans using a “categorical exclusion” to the National Environmental Policy Act, which is the most bare-boned level of review under that federal law.
“I’m going to be asking for an environmental assessment on this,” Camenzind said. “Categorical exclusions are used when you’re talking about retaining a patrol cabin, or putting more picnic tables in, and stuff like that. This is bigger than that.”
Wilmot, the Bridger-Teton biologist, said that Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is taking the bighorn sheep issue seriously.
“They’ve been talking about sheep in this context for a long time, and the sheep concern is not new to them,” Wilmot said. “They’re fully engaged participants in this.”