Categories: EventsNewsWildlife

Saving an iconic herd of bighorn sheep on the brink of extinction

JACKSON, Wyo. — A public meeting last week discussing bighorn sheep will be followed up with another this Thursday as game management officials are hoping to craft solutions for the struggling species moving forward.

Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group, in partnership with the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute, is engaging in a learning process to explore ways to balance the winter habitat needs of Teton Range bighorn sheep and backcountry winter recreation.

Last week, organizers discussed the history and importance of winter backcountry recreation in the Tetons, and how that might sometimes be at odds with bighorn sheep mortality and loss of habitat.

A meeting scheduled for Thursday, February 20 will dive deeper into bighorn sheep ecology, the perspective of recreationists, and hopefully begin coming up with some conceptual solutions. Further meetings are scheduled for March 5 and April 9.

Scientists have documented that Teton bighorn sheep avoid areas frequented by winter recreationists. In some cases, sheep have effectively lost up to 30% of the good winter habitat in the high country because of this displacement. Bighorn sheep that share winter habitat with humans frequently move to avoid them, burning energy, which can result in poor reproduction and starvation. Photo: Mark Gocke

Urgent help for the bighorn is needed

“Better than any other animals the bighorns typify the Tetons,” mountaineering legend Fritiof Fryxell has been quoted as saying. The iconic species has often become synonymous with the Mountain West. But in Jackson Hole, and nearly everywhere else, sheep are dying off in alarming numbers.

The Teton Range bighorn sheep now live in rugged high country, enduring severe winter conditions on windswept ridges. Photo: Mark Gocke

One such small, isolated herd of native bighorn sheep resides in the Teton Range. This ‘Teton Range’ herd has seen its numbers cut in half in just the past 5-10 years, from about 125 animals to, maybe, 60-80.

“They are really on the edge of going extinct,” says Aly Courtemanch, wildlife biologist with Game and Fish and one of six members of the working group. “A number of factors have gone into why they are so at risk. The biggest is human development and pressures have cut off this herd from traditional low-elevation winter range and from other bighorn sheep herds. Long-term fire suppression has also affected habitat quality and blocked access to some low elevation winter ranges.”

These Teton Range sheep now resort to eking out a winter existence in rugged high country, enduring severe conditions on windswept ridges.

But wait, isn’t that where bighorn sheep like to hang out anyway? Not in the old days. Sure, they like have a cliff face nearby for security, but let’s face it, there ain’t much to eat when upper elevations are covered in snow.

“In the early 1900s, human development in Jackson Hole and Teton Valley, Idaho cut off historic migration routes for the sheep. They used to spend winter in the valleys. By 1950, those routes were completely cut off,” Courtemanch says. “Bighorns now spend winter way up high in mountains where they are extremely vulnerable to mortality and disturbance, and there is really limited habitat at 10,000 feet.”

How can the sheep be saved?

This Teton Range herd is broken up fairly evenly into two distinct sub-herds—the northern group and a southern group. Genetic testing of the sheep shows the two groups do not interbreed, so they are, in essence, both dangerously low in population for genetic diversity or even existence for another decade or two.

The Teton Range offers excellent wildlife habitat and spectacular opportunities for outdoor recreation. Land and wildlife managers strive to balance those values. Today, there is increased concern about bighorn sheep in the Tetons, as local experts document those animals are at risk of local extinction. Photo: Mark Gocke

These sheep are not part of the Jackson herd that includes those often seen on the Elk Refuge or in the Gros Ventre or down by Camp Creek.

Scientists have documented that Teton bighorn sheep avoid areas frequented by winter recreationists. In some cases, sheep have effectively lost up to 30% of the good winter habitat in the high country because of this displacement. Bighorn sheep that share winter habitat with humans frequently move to avoid them, burning energy, which can result in poor reproduction and starvation.

The Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group is a public-private group of biologists working together since the early 1990s to conserve bighorn sheep.

This winter the group’s goal is to create awareness with the public in particular, about the plight of bighorn sheep in the Tetons. Based on their conversations with interested parties, members of the working group may gather ideas on how to moderate winter pressure on bighorn sheep.

Other factors threaten the bighorn sheep in general including pressure from non-native mountain goats and disease—most notably pneumonia. But the Teton herd has never had an outbreak of pneumonia. It’s one of the reasons biologists are very reluctant to introduce outside sheep to bolster the population. They can’t risk contamination.

The working group recently brought in eight bighorn sheep experts from around the West. They reviewed everything known to date, and were asked a hard question: Do we have any chance of recovering this population?

The experts agree the herd is on the edge but all is not lost, Courtemanch says.

It’s that hope that keeps the group going. So far, backcountry users have been very sympathetic to the plight of the bighorns and have made some gestures about surrendering or sharing habitat in the winter.

It will take a community effort, but the iconic bighorn sheep herd of the Teton Range can be saved. What can you do to help? Find out Thursday, February 20 from 6-9 p.m. in the Grand
Teton Ballroom at the Snow King Resort

The loss and alteration of important winter habitats have made the herd especially vulnerable; additional factors such as winter backcountry recreation and expanding mountain goats now pressure the herd’s survival even further. Photo: Aly Courtemanch

Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group

  • Aly Courtemanch | Wildlife Biologist WYOMING GAME AND FISH DEPARTMENT
  • Sarah Dewey | Wildlife Biologist GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
  • Steve Kilpatrick | Executive Director WYOMING WILD SHEEP FOUNDATION
  • Michael Whitfield | Research Associate NORTHERN ROCKIES CONSERVATION COOP
  • Jason Wilmot | Biological Science Technician BRIDGER-TETON NATIONAL FOREST
  • Nate Yorgason | Wildlife Biologist CARIBOU-TARGHEE NATIONAL FOREST

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