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Grand Teton National Park says winter human disturbance is shrinking bighorn sheep population

Bighorn sheep
Magnus Kjaergaard via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Grand Teton National Park is exploring how to keep its shrinking bighorn sheep population from going extinct, which could change how people use the park in the winter.

"The Teton Range bighorn sheep population is a remnant of a much larger population that existed here historically," according to a statement from GTNP. "The population is small, isolated from neighboring herds and remains vulnerable to local extinction."

The local herd is estimated at around 100 and lives within some of the most remote areas of the park.

Grand Teton National Park’s (GTNP) ongoing environmental assessment of the sheep comes after efforts were made to protect the herd in 2019, which included lethally and non-lethally removing non-native mountain goats from the park over the last three years. The goats are seen as a habitat and disease threat to the bighorn sheep.

But, the bighorn sheep herd is still declining. That is partly because of human threats to their winter habitat, Jeremy Barnum, GTNP chief of staff, said.

“Over the last few years we've seen incredible improvements in backcountry skiing equipment, and the ability of people to get further and further into the backcountry,” he said.

In the coldest months of winter, human disturbance can be deadly to bighorn sheep.

“They really are in energy conservation mode, all winter long,” Sarah Dewey, GTNP wildlife biologist, said. “And any sort of disturbance, even unintentional, might cause them to run, or move out of the best quality habitat.”

The goal of the environmental assessment is to address how to sustain the herd through winter recreational changes – things like new habitat closures and designated recreation routes through certain areas.

The park is seeking public comment through May 20 for how to develop changes.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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