Sheep - Grand Teton
Bighorn sheep will come down from the Gros Ventre and end up on Miller Butte. Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail.

JACKSON, Wyo. — A virtual meeting will be held tomorrow, Oct. 20 from 6-8:30 p.m. to discuss the findings of the Teton Range bighorn sheep working group. Agency managers from the National Park Service, U.S Forest Service, and Wyoming Game and Fish Department will also be present.

The working group will present recommendations from public meetings that took place from Feb-June 2020.  They are recommending that the agencies consider moving forward with the high and moderate priorities, which total 62 management actions. The recommendation report can be found here. The proposed closures, expansion of current closures, and other recommendations are categorized as high benefit to bighorn sheep/high feasibility, high benefit for bighorn sheep/lower feasibility, lower benefit for bighorn sheep/high feasibility and lower benefit to bighorn sheep/lower feasibility.

Proposed actions are located within, Grand Teton National Park, Caribou-Targhee National Forest and Bridger-Teton National Forest.

The list of proposed actions within Bridger-Teton National Forest. For each region, the actions are categorized and rated in terms of benefits to bighorn sheep and implementation feasibility.

According to the recommendation report, “Overall, implementing the recommended high and moderate priority management actions would result in 21,233 acres of new bighorn sheep winter habitat protections in the Teton Range (47% of winter habitat). Forty-seven percent (16,952 acres) of the high-quality habitat in GRTE would be protected, 49% (3,478 acres) on CTNF, and 38% (803 acres) on BTNF. Of these areas, 2,833 acres overlap with areas that were identified as high-value ski terrain during the public collaborative process. Therefore, 5% of high-value ski terrain would have human access restricted.”

In an email by Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Biologist, Aly Courtemanch, on behalf of the Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group, Courtemanch states, “The recommendations retain access to 95% of the ski terrain in the Teton Range that was identified as highly valued by the collaborative process participants while protecting about 50 percent of the high-quality bighorn sheep winter habitat from disturbance from winter backcountry recreation. At the land management unit scale, 91% of highly valued ski terrain would remain open within Grand Teton National Park, while 99% would continue to be accessible in both national forests.”

“The working group sees this as a relatively small impact to recreational access with a large return for bighorn sheep,” Courtemanch said.

“Along with recommending areas to prioritize bighorn sheep habitat protection or access for winter recreationists, the working group also recommends various other actions that seek to inspire and encourage winter backcountry recreationists to become active stewards for the bighorn sheep and increase public awareness and involvement in monitoring and related conservation efforts,” Courtemanch said.

Backcountry skiers and snowboarders have taken issue with the proposed recommendations. “Backcountry ski terrain can’t be measured by lines on a map. We don’t think the same way a resort does when they calculate skiable acres,” backcountry skier Jeff Dobronyi said. “To us, the entire range is high-quality ski terrain, and the sense of freedom that we get when we can go anywhere we choose, if we just point our skis in that direction, is the very reason we go out of the resorts and into the backcountry in the first place. They’re not limiting 5% of high-quality ski terrain, they’re limiting an infinite amount of freedom and potential.”

Dobronyi questions the expansive closure areas. He said, “As a solution, the biologists recommend that the herd grow from around 100 to around 200 individuals to avoid extinction. These recommendations amount to a 15x, or 1500% increase, in winter backcountry closures. We don’t understand why a 2x increase in population would require a 15x increase in terrain closures. To the layperson, that seems excessive, especially when those closures would impact so many people so deeply.”

Dobronyi suggested increasing the existing closures and measuring the growth of the sheep population before adding more closure areas. “We need to see that these [current] closures are working to grow the sheep population with data because the closures represent a significant loss of freedom to a lot of people,” Dobronyi said.

He also noted that backcountry users are environmentalists, by nature, “That’s why we are out there every day of the winter. We want to see biodiversity preserved and our environment protected.”

The meeting will mark the conclusion of the bighorn sheep-winter recreation public collaborative process, although there will still be opportunities for public engagement on related efforts. The link to the virtual meeting can be found here.

The meeting agenda does not include an opportunity for public comment. According to Courtemanch, no decisions to implement all the recommendations have been made yet. Each agency retains the authority to determine its own path forward.

Buckrail @ Lindsay

Lindsay Vallen is a Community News Reporter covering a little bit of everything; with an interest in politics, wildlife, and amplifying community voices. Originally from the east coast, Lindsay has called Wilson, Wyoming home since 2017. In her free time, she enjoys snowboarding, hiking, cooking, and completing the Jackson Hole Daily crosswords.