Not everything is as it seems in nature.
Take bighorn sheep. Few animals appear as rugged and tough as a bighorn ram, with its muscular body and burly horns.
Yet bighorns are remarkably fragile. They’re susceptible to human stress, winterkill and disease. That’s why since the 1800s these magnificent animals have lost 95% of their range and exist at only 5% of their historic numbers. Given this history, it’s easy to imagine that the Tetons could become yet another mountain range that “used to have” wild bighorns.
Bighorn sheep biologists have been working to conserve the native and rare bighorn herd of the Teton Range to prevent local extinction. This winter we have reached two landmarks in these stewardship efforts.
These bighorns have survived in the Tetons for thousands of years. However, like elsewhere, numerous factors have lowered and restricted their numbers and distribution. Many of these factors are linked to humans — habitat alteration, livestock disease, disturbance, broken migration routes, past overhunting.
Biologists from the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Wyoming Game and Fish Department put their brain power together in the early 1990s to form the Teton Bighorn Sheep Working Group. We solicited the advice of dozens of leading bighorn sheep biologists from both Wyoming and the rest of North America.
The science was solid and agreed upon — a rare unanimous professional consensus. The bighorn sheep professionals agreed on two urgent concerns: One, address the problem of nonnative mountain goats, which can spread disease and compete for food in the Tetons.
Two, address human activities that put stress on the animals, particularly winter recreation that occurs when bighorns are on starvation rations.
Just this month Grand Teton National Park completed its fourth mountain goat cull. It is an unpleasant, expensive and dangerous task with no shortage of controversy. It would have been easy for agency decision-makers to sweep it under the rug, but they did not.
Next is the issue of backcountry recreation. The Teton Bighorn Sheep Working Group agreed that an all-inclusive public collaborative process would be essential in addressing winter backcountry recreation. Many of us are backcountry skiers and keenly aware of the need for skier support. We worked our tails off soliciting substantial funds to hold five large public meetings and dozens of smaller listening sessions. We have spent more than three years welcoming skiers as partners in this process.
We heard a clear message from skiers: While they valued their freedom to roam the Tetons, they also respect bighorn sheep and want to be good stewards of the land.
While some observers recommended that “every remaining acre” of bighorn winter range be protected, we did not want to paint with such a broad brush.
Based on our conversations with the local ski community, we focused on the most critical half of winter range. Skiers went on to identify opportunities for traverses and other flexibility.
This winter the Forest Service and Park Service have asked skiers to voluntarily avoid critical bighorn sheep winter range. The Bighorn Sheep Working Group provided maps of these areas to skiers, both to be printed or to be incorporated in handheld navigation devices using GPS. The maps are available at TetonSheep.org.
So far skiers have largely supported the Teton Bighorn Sheep Working Group’s and agencies’ recommendations.
The group works hard to listen to both the scientists and the wisdom of local skiers. The science behind the research continues to be cutting edge and reviewed and supported by many field professionals and university researchers.
Do we need more data? Certainly. Always. We are interested in what skiers observe and urge them to report their experiences and insights at the hotline available at TetonSheep.org.
We biologists also continue to seek out the best, most accurate way to survey sheep numbers in the first place.
In the end the story is simple. Bighorn sheep in the Tetons are eking out a living, some in the harshest winter habitats. The best way to conserve these sheep long into the future is by grassroots stewardship.
We sincerely appreciate your engagement in the collaborative efforts and associated conservation of the Teton bighorns. Let’s use our passions and what we know about the bighorns to do the right thing, before it’s too late!
Can we enjoy both bighorn sheep and some of the world’s finest backcountry skiing in the Tetons? Yes, if we work together.
Steve Kilpatrick is a biologist and member of the Teton Bighorn Sheep Working Group. He lives in Dubois.