Jackson Hole residents are being asked to help protect the Tetons’ fragile and reeling bighorn sheep herd from winter recreation.
The public will meet four times this spring and winter, beginning Thursday, with the goal of coming to an agreement about a divisive issue, one that could culminate in more areas being closed to backcountry skiing.
“We want a list of specific recommendations from the public to go to the agencies,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist Aly Courtemanch said. “We’ll go back to the agencies at that point, and have that discussion about which of [the recommendations] are possible and reasonable, and which of them are not possible, too expensive, or illegal.”
A professional facilitator, Jessica Western of the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, will lead the collaborative effort.
Managers and biologists have contemplated for decades how to stave off total collapse of the Targhee bighorn herd, the formal name for the Tetons’ isolated population. The native animals have dwelled in the mountain range for 6,000 years and remained “numerous and widely distributed” when early European settlers arrived and started staking out the valley, according to a recent report from the Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group.
Historical and contemporary pressures have reduced the herd to around 100 animals, split between two sub-populations that don’t mingle. Early in the 20th century, as many as 25,000 domestic sheep grazed the western Caribou-Targhee National Forest side of the Tetons, and precipitous declines of the bighorns — potentially from introduced diseases — followed. Lower-elevation sheep winter ranges filled in with trees as wildfires were systematically suppressed, and adjoining native herds in the Big Hole and Snake River ranges were wiped off the map. Migration routes were lost to history.
A confluence of more-recent developments have continued to weigh on the remaining sheep, which now migrate uphill to windswept ridges and alpine meadows to winter. Exotic mountain goats have colonized and proliferated in the Tetons, adding a disease threat and a newfound source of competition for finite high-elevation grasses and forbs. A Grand Teton National Park plan is in motion to eradicate the goats, beginning this winter with contractors who will shoot the goats from a helicopter.
Research also indicates that backcountry skiing displaces sheep from some of their highest-quality habitat, even from slopes that are seldom skied. Already, parts of Static, Hunt and Prospectors mountains are closed to protect sheep.The off-limits areas also include peaks 10,988, 10,905 and 10,495.
There are no predetermined ideas for future closures going into this series of public meetings, Courtemanch said.
“One of the things we plan to do is to provide a big map of where the bighorn sheep winter habitat is, and where the skiing is taking place,” Courtemanch said. “We want the community to come in with an open mind not think, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to shut down my favorite place.’”
“The whole purpose,” she said, “is to learn about it together: Learn about the bighorn sheep science side, learn about the values of skiers and try to balance the two.”
Thursday’s meeting will run from 6 to 9 p.m. at Snow King Hotel. Future meetings will be Feb. 20, March 5 and April 9. For an agenda and details, go online to TetonSheep.org.