Leeks Canyon elk

Nine elk fitted with GPS collars in 2019 helped the Wyoming Game and Fish Department determine swaths of wildlife habitat that wapiti used near Snow King’s planned frontside expansions and new backside development. Elk locations are denoted by white dots, and the “area of influence” — which has line of sight to new activities — is bordered with black.

State wildlife biologists are seeking some concessions to protect species like elk as Snow King Mountain Resort prepares to build out already leased acreage in Leeks Canyon.

Adding ski terrain and other amenities to the south-facing backside of Snow King — which is within the ski area’s current boundary — is a component of all the proposals (except for “no action”) being considered by the Bridger-Teton National Forest. When those plans were “scoped” in 2018, the state wrote back that the “importance of Leeks Canyon as crucial big game winter range cannot be understated” and that development should not compromise wildlife habitat.

Fifteen months later the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is fine-tuning a set of mitigation measures it intends to ask the forest to include in final Snow King plans.

“The project area doesn’t really encompass any crucial habitats,” Game and Fish regional wildlife coordinator Doug McWhirter said.

Backside ski lifts, runs, a bike park and a yurt camp that are on the drawing board are uphill and to the east of a complex of mule deer winter range that stretches from Josies Ridge to Game Creek. Designated elk winter range, he said, is at a similar elevation, but farther to the west in Leeks Canyon. Wildlife migration corridors also bisect the area.

Game and Fish ground-truthed its preconceptions about where elk roam in Leeks Canyon by fitting nine wapiti with GPS tracking collars that were captured south of Snow King last year.

“This was part of an effort to better understand elk use of the native winter range in general,” McWhirter said. “They do make use of that area.”

McWhirter and his staff biologist, Gary Fralick, were also able to visit the site with Snow King General Manager Ryan Stanley last year. Some of their concerns were eased, he said, by seeing the site up close. A ridgeline running down from the Snow King summit “screens” the planned development area from some of the crucial seasonal wildlife habitat farther west.

Still, a “viewshed analysis” included in the environmental impact statement assessing the ski area’s plans determined that elk may be displaced from 417 acres of “crucial winter range” and 141 acres of “winter range” because they fall within the “zone of influence” and have line of sight to new Leeks Canyon activity and east and west expansions on Snow King’s front side.

Wildlife managers worry about the potential impacts to what wildlife habitat remains near town.

“To take a step backwards,” McWhirter said, “the main concern would still be the level of activity happening within the project area and its influence outside of the project area.”

He pointed to research that’s detailed the near collapse of the elk herd that roams near another resort community, Vail, Colorado. State biologists counted only 53 elk in the area last summer, down from 1,000-plus early this century, and an explosion of trail use and recreation has been posited as the cause, according to a report in The Guardian.

“That’s kind of the worst-case scenario that we’re not wanting to see develop here,” McWhirter said.

As a precaution Game and Fish plans to ask the Bridger-Teton for some kind of seasonal restriction, perhaps similar to what’s in place for the ridgetop Skyline Trail. That 6.3-mile trail, new as of 2016, extends from the top of Ferrins to the Game-Cache Creek Divide, but it’s seasonally closed until July 1 to protect calving cow elk. As mitigation measures the state also intends to ask for a prohibition of backside night skiing and some type of infrastructure that would discourage skiers and bikers from heading west toward more crucial big game habitat.

Jeff Golightly, who works for Snow King owner Max Chapman, said he’s on board with the notion of keeping Snow King users confined to their permit area within Leeks Canyon. Science and specialists’ standards for what is appropriate for the area, he said, is also Snow King’s standard.

“It’s our intent to trust the national forest and their consultants and analysis on when and where we should be able to have this type of use,” Golightly said.

Snow King’s permit area within the undeveloped backside extends over a half-mile from the summit ridgeline. In linear terms the amount of terrain it covers is similar to what exists on the town-facing north side of the ski area.

Three blueprints or “alternatives” being assessed by the Bridger-Teton all include a high-speed lift running up from the backside. A yurt and trail leading to the yurt is also common to all the plans, as is a new cleared ski run and glading of the backside conifer stands. Two of the three options include a 110-acre mountain biking “zone” on the backside that would be accessed from a new summit gondola.

Bridger-Teton officials have said they have limited ability to deny many of the expansive changes proposed on Snow King because they’d compromise the ski resort’s “purpose and need.” The Bridger-Teton’s guiding forest plan classifies the Snow King permit area and immediately adjacent lands as “special use recreation” acreage, where wildlife is explicitly de-emphasized.

But the Leeks Canyon development plans conflict with other guiding community documents. The 2012 Jackson/Teton Comprehensive Plan states that “existing planned resorts should be limited to their existing footprint.”

Game and Fish Deputy Director Angi Bruce also pointed out in the agency’s 2018 scoping letter that the Leeks Canyon lands adjacent to Snow King are classified differently in the forest plan. Some of the canyon is to be managed to have “no adverse and some beneficial effects on wildlife,” she wrote, while other parts are supposed to be managed for “high quality wildlife habitat,” “escape cover,” hunting and dispersed recreation.

“We believe the current proposal to develop the Leeks Canyon area with additional novice skiing opportunities, construction of a new ski lift and snow-making equipment, increased vehicular access, and other developments that will increase the human-presence footprint in and adjacent to this important winter range will effectively render most, if not all, of this winter range unsuitable for big game use,” Bruce wrote in 2018.

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

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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