Forethought Helps Bighorns Conserve Valuable Energy
If you think your energy bill will be high this winter, consider the bighorn sheep. You and I pay our fuel bills with our wallets. Bighorns may pay with their lives.
Just before Christmas, the Teton Range were slammed with a historic cold snap. According to the Bridger Teton Avalanche Center, mountain temperatures reached 50 below zero and wind gusts of 100 miles per hour.
You can feel it in your lungs and your exposed skin tingles instantly. Exposed skin is at risk of frostbite within minutes. Yes, bighorns protect their skin with an amazing hair coat, but survival above timberline for an entire season is no doubt challenging.
Yet, somehow bighorn sheep survive weather that would chill a polar bear, even lambs that are only months old and smaller than many of our pet dogs.
In many ways, bighorn sheep are rugged. In other ways, they are fragile. Winter gradually weakens them. Like other wild ungulates, they often lose 20% or more of their body weight, becoming more susceptible to parasite and pathogen invasion. Winter mortality is often prolonged with many not dying until spring.
The Teton Range offers world-class backcountry skiing. It also offers world-class wildlife habitat. Bighorn sheep are the original mountaineers of the Teton Range, but our development, highways and recreational activities have greatly reduced much of their winter range – where past bighorn generations moved seasonally to escape the worst of the weather.
We can continue to have both great skiing and bighorn sheep. All we have to do is think ahead so we don’t continue to whittle away at the winter range bighorn sheep need in the Tetons. This is really nothing new – in the early 1990’s we all worked together to protect winter range for elk, moose, bighorns, and deer on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in our corner of Wyoming.
Backcountry skiing represents who we are, our values. And, so does conserving the original mountaineers of the Tetons – bighorns. Today, the Tetons support only about 200 bighorn sheep. When populations dip that low, biologists worry about animals’ long-term survival. A harsh winter, a disease outbreak or even a big avalanche can make all the difference. Compare those 200 or so bighorns to the 10,000 and more elk that winter on the National Elk Refuge. Bighorns numbers are at about 5% of their historic levels across Wyoming and the West.
So how can we be good stewards of the land and have a great day skiing at the same time? It’s not that hard. The key is planning ahead.
Bighorn sheep are sensitive to disturbance. That is, when they sense a predator (in this case, people) is too close, they often abandon the habitat they are using to find safety. This causes them to burn precious energy, utilize suboptimum habitats and puts them at greater risk to disease/nutrition afflictions, avalanches and other dangers. The best thing we can do for bighorns in the winter is leave them alone.
The Teton Range Bighorn Working Group has used the best science we have – reviewed by outside experts along with local wildlife managers and recreationists alike – and they have mapped bighorn sheep winter range for the public to see. You can download the maps to your smart phone at www.tetonsheep.org.
We already plan our ski days where we think the snow will be best and where avalanche risk is manageable. It’s a relatively simple manner to factor in bighorn sheep winter conservation zones as well.
After planning your own trip, please share the word. Let’s let other skiers, snowboarders and winter recreationists know about these winter conservation zones.
The Teton Bighorn Working Group is also interested in your observations in the backcountry, so please share your insights by leaving a message at 307-739-3558.
We don’t know what 2023 will bring. But this winter has already started with above-average snow fall and below average temperatures. Bighorn sheep will be paying for that harsh winter until spring green up, when they can begin to rebuild their fat reserves. So please keep avoiding those habitat zones well through April.
I’m not usually one for New Year’s resolutions, but here’s one that’s easy to keep. Let’s all be good stewards of the Teton Range, including giving plenty of space to bighorn sheep.
Teton Bighorn Sheep Working Group Member
Board of Directors, National Bighorn Sheep Center