Why skiers and sheep need each other

JACKSON, Wyo. — What to backcountry skiers (and snowboarders) and Teton bighorn sheep have in common?

“They’re both extreme mountain athletes that love to spend time in alpine environments,” says Josh Metten, a member of Teton Backcountry Alliance.

Skiers and sheep also need each other.

Teton Backcountry Alliance is hosting a “Teton Sheep and Skier Social” Friday, November 15 from 5–7 p.m. at the American Legion. The point, Metten says, is to facilitate a conversation about the relationship between backcountry skiers, splitboarders, and bighorn sheep.

The Tetons are home to a “really amazing” herd of bighorn sheep that has held strong while other populations nearby have all been nearly wiped out. “They’ve adapted to survive in an extreme environment at 10,000 feet,” Metten says.

But the population is in decline. It’s not easy to live at 10,000 feet, and any disturbance, even from one skier, can have a big impact on a sheep’s health.

A study by Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife biologist Alyson Courtemanch shows that bighorn sheep aren’t used to backcountry recreation in the rugged environments they call home, and they actively try to avoid it. That takes energy, and energy is precious in the wintertime.

“While we’re going out skiing and coming back to eat big, high-calorie meals in heated houses, sheep have the opposite strategy,” Metten says. They bulk up in the summer and fall and live off of fat reserves in the winter. On top of that, females are usually pregnant.

“Avoiding disturbing wildlife in the winter is really important,” Metten says.

That’s not to say backcountry athletes shouldn’t continue to ski and snowboard in the Tetons. On the contrary, “the Tetons are a really special place for skiers,” Metten says. “Skiing is one of the ways we connect with the natural world.”

But as backcountry recreationists, skiers are also stewards of the landscape and the wildlife, Metten says.

“We [Teton Backcountry Alliance] want to see a sustainable future for both skiing and sheep in the Tetons. We’re making decisions that will allow us to keep skiing, but do it in a responsible way.”

Be a part of the conversation tomorrow from 5–7 at the American Legion. Representatives from the Teton Bighorn Sheep Working Group (Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Grand Teton National Park, Bridger Teton and Caribou Targhee National Forests, Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation) will be on hand to answer questions about the issue and facilitate discussion. Some refreshments will be provided.

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