Sheeple, People, and Aspen — Backcountry Skiing News Roundup

Post by blogger | July 25, 2014      

Sheeple or people? It’s always interesting to me when backcountry user restrictions finally trickle down to us human powered denizens of the outback (first they took our ATVs, then they took our skis, then they took our socks!).

In the Jackson, Wyoming area a study of bighorn sheep winter range shows the noble beasts intersect with backcountry skiing routes in some zones. Using what appear to be the intriguing (to put it nicely) cause-effect assumptions of conservation biology, as well as a dose of preemptive caution, the idea of more sheep habitat restrictions on backcountry skiing range is being floated as a result of the study. (Note the Teton skier restrictions began some time ago, this is just a continuation of the process).

The study biologist said (according to Jackson Hole News) “I want to reiterate that the population is small… it [presence of backcountry skiers] does put them at risk, but it’s currently stable.” So, the population is currently stable but at risk?

We’re all for reasonable efforts at wildlife conservation and it may well be that the Teton bighorn need a winter environment with no humans within their threat zone (some areas are already restricted). Yet clearly the extrapolation and guesswork in this sort of thing is worrisome. For example, one has to wonder if helicopter mugging and collaring about 23% of the small sheep herd might be at least as bad as the presence of backcountry skiers? More, the number one cause of sheep mortality? Avalanches, not people.

Time for reality check. According to my reading the whole Wyoming Tetons bighorn situation is actually caused not by skiers, not by hunters, not by bird watchers — but rather by valley development blocking off or eliminating winter range, essentially stranding the bighorn in a harsh winter alpine environment that’s not their choice.

Thus, the real conclusion of this study and associated management policy is perhaps this: build your mansion in Wyoming and do a 100% scientifically verified whack job on the poor bighorn who are forced to live in avalanche terrain, but if you’re a backcountry skier please tiptoe around like you’re in the room with a sleeping baby. Thing is, that tiptoeing skier might be making her living maintaining the hot tub at the mansion. Pull a string — everything is connected!

Concluding thought: Why not use backcountry skiers to haze the sheep into returning down the mountain to their ancestral winterground — after it’s cleared of a few pesky roads and estates?

More about bighorn sheep here. Also, this article at WyoFile is super complete and recommended reading if you want to learn more.

Down south from Jackson, here in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado we occasionally receive cognitive dissonance from Aspen. Actually, more than occasionally. While the industrial tourism area of Aspen helps many around here make a living and we do like the old mining town, the little village does tend to take a rather inflated view of itself that’s a source of frequent laughs.

According to an article in a local rag, Aspen’s mayor Steve Skadron is floating the idea of creating a segment of the town economy devoted to ski mountaineering equipment development. Strangely enough, Skadron is proposing that a part of town devoted to fur shops and jewelry boutiques be given over to skimo businesses that would be panting like teenage lovers at the opportunity to displace those businesses with their design and development operations.

Really, no kidding. While I’m all for Aspen going back to the days when the town was filled with innovators and engineers instead of hedge fund billionaires (otherwise known as the mining era, around a century ago), let me relate a top 10 list as to why this is probably not going to happen regarding backcountry skiing equipment development. I share this as a favor to Skadron and his cohorts so their valuable energy and time can be put towards the basics of running a resort town instead of indulging in anthropocentric fantasies.

10. Floor space rental prices in Aspen? Stratospheric.

9. No useful summer skiing for testing is closer than Washington state.

8. We now get multiple dust storms every spring, so the legendary Colorado spring ski mountaineering season has been virtually canceled. For some strange reason the Aspen Skiing Company is doing nothing to help mitigate this, even though most of the dust comes from only several hundred miles away. In any case, a viable skimo equipment development operation would need the extended spring season for field testing that didn’t require a cross country flight.

7. Aspen has been quite successful with making private automobile access to their town a royal joke. Large traffic jams pump massive amounts of CO2 nearly any winter morning and most afternoons, delaying your day. Once you’re there, no reasonable parking. Mass transit exists, but is useless for backcountry skiers who need to range about the valley getting the goods. For that you need a good old-fashioned automobile.

6. Cost of living around here, even when you’re not in Aspen, is akin to Alaska.

5. In many cases, add an extra day to speedy shipping, especially when the airport closes due to winter storms. More, this is not an industrial hub; while you might be able to find a scrap of fur to do some climbing skin experiments, you can’t run to the other side of town for a chunk of 7075 T6 aluminum if you’re prototyping a binding.

4. Shortage of affordable housing.

3. Regarding avalanche safety, Colorado has the worst backcountry snow in the western U.S. The closer you get to Aspen from the west, the worse it tends to get. The better skiing is more than an hour’s drive to the west, near other towns.

2. Italy

1. Austria

Don’t get me wrong, with a town population of about 6,000 souls and an annual budget of about $100,000,000 you’d think Aspen could take that $17,000 yearly subsidy that each city resident gets and reduce by say $2,000, thus creating a skimo business development pool of a cool 12 million? I’ll bet someone would bite, even if they had to ski on dirt all spring.


12 Responses to “Sheeple, People, and Aspen — Backcountry Skiing News Roundup”

  1. Jim Milstein July 25th, 2014 8:36 am

    Totally agree, Lou. Locating skimo R&D in Aspen is folly. A far better choice would be New Uraniborg (the metropolis formerly known as Pagosa Springs). NU already hosts the Keplerian Institution, famous for its pioneering work in interventional astronomy. The possibilities for collaboration and cross-fertilization are endless. Wolf Creek Pass is pretty snowy, too. I do not even mention the extraordinary transportation network radiating from NU.

  2. bill h July 25th, 2014 12:55 pm

    Hey Lou, bummer that you guys in Pitkin County had No. 8 hit ya so hard this year…

    As for a little more to the East, we can only smilingly assure you that the Gores, 10 Miles, and Berthoud gave up the goods on a regular basis between the first week of April and the end of June. :)

  3. Brian July 25th, 2014 1:18 pm

    Does Lisa have any recipes for big horn that she could post?

  4. Lou Dawson July 25th, 2014 1:34 pm


  5. Eric Steig July 25th, 2014 2:18 pm

    Lou, possibly your best sentence ever:

    “Why not use backcountry skiers to haze the sheep into returning down the mountain to their ancestral winterground — after it’s cleared of a few pesky roads and estates?”

  6. wyomingowen July 25th, 2014 2:42 pm

    I remember well the winter of the study. Having an affinity for statistics I challenged the data collectors at the Taggart Lake Trailhead all winter. They targeted fit BC people whom had the appropriate gear, ONLY!

    I asked if they could tell me out of so many thousand users of the Taggart trailhead how many were going where they were expecting, duh, but pardon me when 100% of your sample population performs exactly the way you want to, suspect at best.

    After hundreds of days on the appropriate ridges I’ve had a handful of sightings at best, maybe they are that sensitive but to see more wolverines and grouse, makes me wonder as those species have challenges too.

    Best part I didn’t see mentioned Lou is this was for a Master’s thesis not even a doctorate!!!! And they were flying fixed wing in the are all winter not whirly birds, talk about disruptive.

    I chose to not comment in the local news as there was nothing to gain, surprisingly some of our respected ski community is supportive and I’m not looking for new ski partners at this time.

  7. Carl Pelletier July 25th, 2014 5:06 pm

    I’m with Wyoming Owen on this one. I’m all for habitat protection, but I feel as though “our” national park service is grasping at every straw that they can to reduce, limit and otherwise eliminate use and access in “their” parks. I was offered a GPS “collar” at least 3 times at the Taggart Lake trail head. I politely declined all three times. I should have taken the collar and drove back to the park service HQ and wandered around there for a bit and then returned it.

  8. Lou Dawson 2 July 25th, 2014 8:03 pm

    What disappoints me about these sorts of things is that the nut of the matter is rarely mainstreamed. Also, it seems to be done backwards. The nut is that we need to decide how valuable human recreation is versus wildlife habitat, in given areas. After the decision is made as to how favored the recreation should be, then we can spend the money and time on studies and the subsequent debates, or not.

    For example, someone at some time obviously decided that Jackson ski resort was worth influencing a vast amount of wildlife habitat. The decision was made, the resort was built. The absurd logical conclusion to this would be to do a study of the Jackson resort lands as to how good of sheep habitat they’d be. While they’re at it, they could figure out if there was anything detrimental to elk, deer, lynx, chipmunks and mice (I’d throw beetles in there too, but I’m serious). If the resort was found to have taken habitat from any of this wildlife, it should then be decommissioned and restored to it’s pre-colonial ecological state.

    Or, perhaps the common wisdom is that the downhill skiing at Jackson resort is worth any negative influence it has on wildlife?

    Also, Wyoming is HUGE. Count Nevada, Montana and Colorado in there, and we have plenty of bighorn sheep. In one small area they built a resort with some good backcountry access, in a place called Jackson Hole. It indeed irks me that they are seeming to pick on this one small little human recreation pocket. Like I said, they should go down to Jackson town and figure out which homes and other buildings are the original cause of all the trouble the sheep are having, then we can have a meaningful discussion — though I know what the conclusion would be. I can wax rhetorical, but they’re not going to start the bulldozers. Instead, study those pesky backcountry skiers!

  9. Kevin July 25th, 2014 10:13 pm

    Don’t really know too much about this situation, but I’ll way anyway :). I don’t really buy the argument that the bighorn sheep are somehow going to be die off from too many skiers nearby. The bighorn sheep along I-70 outside near Georgetown, CO seem to be doing fine, and obviously that is a much more heavily human impacted area. It’s possible that the sheep have a decrease in reproductive fitness due to avoiding certain habitats, but it doesn’t really seem like the kind of thing that wipes out 100 individuals.
    My understanding is that the big danger for bighorn sheep is interaction with domestic sheep and exposure to pneumonia (which seems to be a rather old phenomena, e.g. ). It’s possible that due to this issue, areas w/o domestic sheep are very important for the viability of bighorn sheep. Perhaps the thinking is that the Tetons are a refuge for the bighorn from areas with domestic sheep, and hence need to be protected. It seems to me that the best thing to do to protect bighorn would be to ensure they have no interaction with domestic sheep.

    Backcountry skiers are a second order effect at best. Of course it might be easier to remove backcountry skiers from this area than to remove domestic sheep from other areas.

  10. Hans July 28th, 2014 11:07 am

    Funny, how JHMR was recently given permission to build a new lift too. Wonder how the sheep feel about that?

  11. Jim Milstein July 28th, 2014 11:23 am

    Hans, the sheep will probably not be allowed on the new lift at JHMR without a pass. I expect this will not win the hearts and minds of the sheep. Perhaps a study should be done.

  12. brian h July 28th, 2014 7:05 pm

    We have a number of areas down here in s.w. Colo that have seasonal closures for elk and deer winter habitat, for peregin falcon nesting, lynx habitat, etc. Most of this land is definitely valued for recreation during those closures. I would THINK that the data (reasons) behind the proposed closures have some merit. It’s easy to dismiss public funded biology as one more willy nilly government ‘take away’ but the researchers are observing these animals year after year and build up real data in real time. They don’t control what’s done with the data. Politicians pass the budgets that control the effect of the data. Politicians that cave to unreasonably squeaky wheels or to the color of your money (black, like oil). Consequently, it won’t be the citizens of Wyoming that would decide this. Ask ’em if they wanted wolves…

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