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Teton ski community gives a mixed response to proposed backcountry closures

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Grand Teton National Park is mulling winter backcountry closures in an effort to protect a small and isolated herd of native bighorn sheep. The proposal has become controversial among the backcountry ski community.

Wyoming Public Radio's Will Walkey began by asking Jackson Hole News & Guide reporter Billy Arnold, 'How many sheep are in the Tetons?' Turns out that question isn't as simple as you'd think.

Billy Arnold: For years, the way biologists would determine or estimate the population was something that they called a trend count, where they would fly helicopters over the mountains and count as many sheep as they could. Those estimates put the population right around 100 sheep. But more recently, we've seen the Grand Teton National Park biologists start a different way of sampling for sheep populations, and population estimates that have come back have actually been higher than what the Game and Fish Department saw on the trend count. In 2020, they estimated 178 sheep in the park.

So those are the raw numbers. And what park officials and Game and Fish officials have told me is that the size of that herd is still so small that they're worried about, you know, some event wiping out a significant number of the herd and sending the population into a downward spiral.

Will Walkey: You got to go up with a couple of volunteers who are trying to count sheep in the Tetons using droppings. Can you just describe a little bit of what that was like? And why is it so challenging to get an accurate assessment of the number of sheep in the Teton Range?

BA: The way that the helicopter surveys worked, it can be difficult to spot small white animals in the winter on the snow in the Tetons. And, you know, bighorn sheep are pretty wiley. They're pretty good at getting into nooks and crannies when they feel threatened. And so flying a helicopter – you know, they'll fly the same route every year – it can be hard to know exactly if you're seeing all the sheep because they're hard to see and they don't like the sound of a helicopter coming over.

But this new method that the park is using is basically a DNA-based method where what they do is they go out and they pick up sheep poop. And as they're going along, you know, these pellets are like the size of a pea. And the area that we went to was the backside of Cody Peak. And we're out with these volunteers, and they are essentially walking up and down a rocky face trying to find pea-sized black pellets, and in some cases, pea-sized gray pellets, that blend in.

And so it's a pretty painstaking process. And it takes a lot of time. What the park is now trying to figure out how to do is, they've been doing the study for about four years. And when that's over, they're trying to figure out, how can they do this semi-annually so they can get a better idea of the trend.

WW: So a working group of wildlife biologists in the Tetons who are concerned about the population have recommended closures in the winter for backcountry users. What is the status of that?

BA: Basically, this group called the Teton Bighorn Sheep Working Group has been working on and considering the bighorn sheep in the Tetons for years. And last season, they put in place these things called voluntary closures. And basically what those did is they asked us to avoid certain areas of the park that bighorn sheep tend to frequent in the winter.

But then this year when the ski season wrapped up, and the winter season wrapped up, Grand Teton National Park came out with a scoping notice basically saying 'We're looking to make these voluntary closures mandatory closures. And we're considering doing this.' And that was the spring.

And over the next couple of months, people were given the opportunity to weigh in. And Grand Teton National Park is now starting to move towards an environmental assessment where they will look at alternatives for closures in the area. So they haven't said, ‘We are going to close parts of the Tetons to skiing.’ But what they have said is, ‘This is something we're considering.’

And now [they’re] putting together possibilities and alternatives for managing it that will include likely not just closures, but expanded education [and] signage. And that will probably come out sometime this fall and then the public will have an opportunity to comment on it. And the earliest that we could see changes as far as recreational management will probably be sometime later this winter.

WW: Can you characterize a little bit of your reporting of the response of the backcountry ski community?

BA: So what we did is we asked the park for all the public comments that they'd received on the proposed closures. And I've been in touch with members of the backcountry ski community and advocates for backcountry access kind of since this process started. And it was a pretty interesting mix.

You saw a lot of people from out of state, out of the Jackson Hole area, saying, for lack of a better word, – and actually, directly in some cases – 'Skiers should suck it up.' You know, 'Ski elsewhere because the sheep live there and they don't have anywhere else to go.'

But then there's a lot of pushback from skiers in the area that were looking at stuff like this population estimate and questioning if one estimate was lower, and one estimate was higher, you know, why are we still moving towards closures? And do we actually really even know how many sheep live in the park? And there are a lot of questions about the closures. A lot of suggestions for alternatives. You know, people saying, ‘Could you plow the road, which only goes about halfway through the park, further up in the park to give skiers access elsewhere in the range?’

And so there's a lot of people asking for creative thinking around this. And then some people that were outright opposed to the closures.

WW: What's been the Teton National Park and biology community's response to the ski community's response?

BA: You know, talking with wildlife biologists like Aly Courtemanch, and she's the person whose research really kind of showed that the impact that human recreation and particularly unpredictable human recreation has on bighorn sheep herds, you know, she has spent a considerable amount of time going back and forth with skiers.

And I think groups like the Backcountry Alliance and whatnot will really press the issue. And right now what they're advocating for is they want to see closures that allow for some access to classic ski lines, and that's more or less what the voluntary closures did. There's gonna be a lot of discussion about this when the environmental assessment comes out this fall. It'll be really interesting to see where it goes.

Will Walkey is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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