Backcountry skiing has steadily become more popular in the last decade and the pandemic has heightened the popularity even more. An increase in recreationists though means wildlife are likely to experience more disturbances. In some wildlife populations, like the Grand Teton bighorn sheep herd, that has contributed to shrinking numbers and habitat size.
The herd is now less than 100 individuals.
"What's so especially important about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Tetons is that the wildness found here is not just rugged terrain, it's also rugged mountain athletes, the wild animals that get to live in these areas, and have persisted despite all of these odds against them," said film producer Josh Metten.
Metten and local filmmaker Zach Montes teamed up to produce a short film, titled Denizens of the Steep, that sheds light on the issue.
"We originally talked about this a few years ago, and it's been something that we've talked about as a passion project for several years," said Metten. "And now we got it done, and were able to get it released earlier this month."
The film was sponsored by big-name companies like Osprey Packs and New Belgium's Fat Tire, but also by organizations like the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Teton Conservation District. It brought together perspectives from outfitters, backcountry recreationists, and scientists.
"In any type of situation, if someone from the outside tells you that what you're doing is wrong, you're going to get defensive. It's kind of a natural thing for us to do as humans is to try and put our guard up against challenges to something that we're very exceptionally passionate about," said Metten. "But the thing about this issue is that stewardship and conservation are inherently part of the culture of outdoor enthusiasts. It's what we do."
One of the characters in the film was a backcountry skier Kim Havell. Her husband's ancestors homesteaded nearby in Wilson, Wyoming, and is in the outfitting business today, so she approaches the issue from multiple perspectives.
"I think we're at a turning point, as humans, and we're getting into more and more remote areas, which is something that many of us love to do," said Havell. "But having respect for the environment and the wildlife is critical, and if we want to make sure that all the elements that we enjoy are still here for our children, and perhaps even for ourselves in the next 50 years, I think now is the time for us to make really good choices about how we travel in those environments and giving everything a wide berth and leaving no trace."
In Havell's opinion, this film will be a good way to reach other skiers who may be less aware of the issue or new to the sport.
"Even I wouldn't have known much about this if it hadn't been for my family and some of the people I've gotten to know in more recent years," said Havell. "I think it's something that hasn't quite been tackled yet, and it was very important to Josh and his work, and for a lot of the folks that have been working as hard as they can to figure out a way to preserve this Teton sheep herd. And it's iconic, and it's the last of its kind, and there are things we can do."
The film was made in the middle of a pandemic, which means the team faced some challenges.
"We filmed one day in Grand Teton National Park skiing, and then the park closed down," said Metten.
It caused the filmmakers to wonder if they could even continue with the project. But they decided to look for areas to safely ski outside the park, which opened their eyes to the available areas outside of the bighorn sheep's habitat.
"There's a ton of ski terrain available across the Jackson Hole area. And what's interesting about that is in Grand Teton National Park there's actually only a really small area of habitat left for bighorn sheep," said Metten. "So part of what we're trying to tell with this story is that skiers have a ton of places to go and explore and have awesome times, adventuring in the woods and in the mountains. Bighorn sheep have really nowhere else to go that's left."
Metten and Havell agreed that this is a pressing issue that will require a lot of people to solve.
"See, I think there's a really cool opportunity right now for outdoor enthusiasts of all types to look at the wild country around us and the wildlife around us, and really cherish that and be awed by the fact that it still exists today in the developed world that we have," said Metten. "And it is really up to all of us to look at ourselves, and identify what we can do to keep it around. Or the simple fact that it deserves to exist, and that it's something that we will pass on to future generations if we do it right."
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at email@example.com.