One idea that emerged was to punch out Teton Park Road all the way to Jenny or String Lake so that uphill skiers could more easily play up north in exchange for more expansive bighorn sheep closures farther south.
Another suggestion, a la British Columbia’s Rodgers Pass, was to require skiers and split-boarders to check into and be educated at a visitor center before heading into the backcountry. A third thought was to establish designated uphill routes that bypassed the most sensitive of the Tetons’ sheep habitat — a situation not unlike the upper Gros Ventre Road today.
Such suggestions surfaced Thursday night in a Snow King Hotel conference room, where dozens of backcountry skiers, wildlife advocates and interested residents convened over three and a half hours. Their task — executed while poring over maps that illustrated where sheep roam and skiers ski — was to come up with a mutually agreeable batch of ideas that would allow the Tetons’ embattled native sheep herd to stage a comeback.
Formulating wildlife conservation policy usually doesn’t work this way, Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation Executive Director Steve Kilpatrick reminded the audience.
“The bottom line is, if we can’t come up with something here, then the agencies may fall back into their routine of top down,” Kilpatrick said at the meeting’s onset. “They’ll ask the biologists what’s good for sheep, recommend it and then throw it out to the public.”
“Keep in mind, the Park Service and the Forest Service are not [going] to let their herd go extinct,” he said. “You may see some drastic measures if we don’t come up with better solutions.”
Jay Pistono, a spokesman for the ski community, spoke glowingly of the animal that drew everyone there.
“They’re on these high, windswept ridges, and to me the bighorn is just a special animal for this area,” Pistono said. “I hope the bighorns are around when my kids have kids.”
Pistono urged the audience to come together and fend off any inklings of tribalism. Honesty during deliberations is important, he said, but don’t “divide up.”
The herd’s fragility was seldom challenged, though the audience had lots of pointed, nuanced questions. Decorum was generally on display, perhaps somewhat impressively given the sensitive nature of the subject: the prospect of prized Teton skiing lines being on the chopping block.
Land and wildlife managers who guided the meeting emphasized that science led them to this process. It was biologist Aly Courtemanch’s University of Wyoming graduate research a decade ago that laid the groundwork. Assessing GPS location information from both skiers and sheep, she found that the two don’t mix.
The Tetons’ native bighorn sheep are being displaced from their most prime high-elevation habitat, and they’re unable to habituate to almost any frequency of backcountry skiing, her research concluded.
Courtemanch, who today manages the herd for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, flew over the Tetons just the other week to see how the sheep are faring.
Flying in near-perfect conditions over somewhat fresh snow, she counted 100 bighorns split between two herds that are geographically isolated and don’t mingle.
There were 60 sheep in the northern Tetons, in places like Forellen, Elk, Owl, Ranger, Doane and Maidenform peaks. Another 40 sheep held on in the southern Tetons, in places like Mount Hunt, Prospectors Mountain, and Static, Avalanche and Veiled peaks. A group of four bighorns eked it out in the most southerly part of their range, in Rendezvous Peak’s Jensen Canyon.
“We’re still very concerned about this herd,” Courtemanch said, “even though numbers look better than last year’s survey.”
An unofficial goal of the Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group is to grow the northern and southern herds to about 100 animals apiece, Kilpatrick said.
Wildlife managers are concerned enough that they’re in the process of eradicating a population of about 100 nonnative mountain goats that have hoofed it to the Tetons from the Snake River Range, where they were introduced by the state of Idaho in the late 1960s. In the meantime, the goats are thought to pose a disease threat.
The Teton sheep herd is “naive” to potential pathogens that lead to often-catastrophic pneumonia. This same vulnerability takes importing sheep from nearby herds to bolster the population off the table.
Working out an arrangement with skiers is the next major step in the sheep preservation game plan.
Over the weekend, Grand Teton National Park’s Sarah Dewey and Carson Butler will be working to digitize all the ideas that emerged at the meeting to illustrate them on online maps. Then on Monday, staff of Grand Teton Park, Game and Fish and the Caribou-Targhee and Bridger-Teton national forests are getting together to start translate the participants’ proposals into some type of policy.
What they come up with will be reported out to the public come April 9, said Jessica Western, a University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute scientist who’s facilitating the process.
“This is the purpose of this entire process,” Western told the crowd Thursday. “The question is, ‘How can we have excellent winter recreation opportunities while also allowing bighorn sheep enough undisturbed winter habitat to survive in the Tetons?’”
“How can we do both?” she said.