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Winter backcountry users submit suggestions for preserving GTNP Bighorn Sheep

Wildlife managers hope the proposed closures would help double the Teton bighorn sheep population from about 100 to 200 animals.
Stuart Litoff
Estimates suggest the historic Bighorn Sheep herd in Grand Teton National Park hovers between 60 to 178 sheep.

Grand Teton National Park is working on a plan to address winter human disturbance on Bighorn Sheep, and several local groups have offered their feedback from a recent survey of backcountry users.

Estimates suggest the historic Bighorn Sheep herd in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) hovers between 60 to 178 sheep. The park has feared human disturbance in the winter – primarily from a growing number of backcountry skiers – is threatening the sheep population.

“The primary aim is to provide secure winter habitat for bighorn sheep so they can spend the winter in disturbance free zones, while also providing backcountry winter recreation opportunities,” according to a GTNP press release.

Sarah Dewey, GTNP wildlife biologist, 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 park implemented temporary voluntary closures this past winter and recently wrapped up its public scoping period as part of its drafting of a long term winter use plan.

Several recreation and conservation groups in the Jackson area conducted a survey to see what kind of solutions backcountry users – like skiers and climbers – would like to see. Gary Kofinas, the steering committee chair for the Teton Backcountry Alliance, said there were 258 respondents.

“Most people said they were willing to comply with closures be they hard closures or voluntary closures,” Kofinas said. “But a lot of people also said, I'm not sure closures are necessary, and a lot of people question the basis on which closures are made.”

Kofinas said many respondents would like to see more research and education outreach.

Additionally, Charlie Thomas, a board member with the Teton Climbers Coalition, said many respondents indicated communication and re-analyzing any implemented plans would be key.

“Most people wanted to see an adaptive management plan, whereby the closures were not just set in stone, but were going to be revisited as more information was gathered about the impact of skiers on the bighorn sheep,” Thomas said.

The recreation groups wrote a letter of suggestions to GTNP based on the feedback from the survey. One of the other main ideas is to treat the northern and southern parts of the park separately. Thomas said survey results indicated very few people use the northern end of the park in the winter, as it is more difficult to access. The groups suggested the busier area in the southern half have some mandatory closures, but the northern half just have voluntary closures.

“It just seemed like most people felt like areas that were rarely visited that had a lot more terrain for the sheep, that skiers could use a little bit more of their own judgment on where to go,” Thomas said.

Overall, Josh Metten, a steering committee member with the Teton Backcountry Alliance, said he was uplifted by the volume of responses from the survey.

“I have always believed that the backcountry ski community are stewards of the wildlife and the wild places around us and we're willing to set limits and do the right thing when it comes to conserving the wildlife that live in the places that we play,” Metten said.

He is an advocate of some winter recreation closures in GTNP. Metten said it is a small price to pay.

“When you look at the areas that are proposed for closures compared to the vast acreage of open terrain where there's no conflict with Bighorn Sheep and wildlife, it's a very tiny area of the Tetons,” he said.

Metten did acknowledge that there is a smaller group of extreme mountaineers that would lose access to terrain if permanent closures go into place.

GTNP said it has taken all feedback into consideration and will be releasing another environmental assessment this fall for the public to comment on before any permanent plans are implemented.

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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