WildSnow op-eds come from community members. On this issue, sheep and skiers, we did reach out to individuals opposed to the proposed closures, and we have not received op-eds voicing that opinion. If you are interested in publishing an op-ed, please email email@example.com.
“Ski Mountaineering Community Successfully Averts Biologists’ Recommended Teton Bighorn Closures”. I fantasize about seeing this headline in print. I would be very proud of such a headline.
A multi-agency group in Wyoming’s Tetons has recently published a document recommending specific emergency measures, including seasonal closure of ski terrain, to protect a threatened, genetically distinct population of bighorn sheep. That document, and the associated proposed closures, are stimulating attention and discussion in the ski community.
Teton bighorn sheep have long been threatened. Dramatic, recent increases in ski traffic in the Tetons -ski traffic that stresses the sheep- have attracted the attention of biologists and land managers.
Protection of these sheep is complicated, uncertain, and involves many players and variables. Rumors abound, and tensions are high. Many people involved feel powerless and disheartened, and many more are deeply passionate. It is not clear what, if anything, will protect these sheep as scientists are hard at work examining the situation. Anecdotal evidence abounds.
Like other skiers, I’ve been disheartened by this process. But not in the same way as other skiers. In a series of 2020 meetings (between skiers and the working group) and in social media content I haven’t observed a ton of understanding and grace from the ski community. I see little to no concession.
We were invited into the decision-making process in a way I’d never seen before. A little sliver of a global environmental crisis (biodiversity loss) is at our doorstep. As skiers and citizens in the year 2021, we could be especially mindful of the need for sacrifice in the face of public crisis. Similarly, we could understand that crisis response is uncertain, unfair and ever-debatable.
But all I see from the GTNP ski crowd is resistance to sacrifice. Sure, other measures would be even more effective. Sure, the science is rough and will surely evolve. Sure, the world will go on even if we screw up this particular sheep thing. But, do we risk this latter eventuality only because we don’t want to? Undermine the experts because we don’t like what they’re saying?
I, for one, hope that we can avert these closures. But not with activism. I propose we get ahead of the closures with a voluntary avoidance of the proposed terrain. I bet that, even in recent very active seasons, the top tier of proposed closure terrain saw about 1% of Teton Park ski mountaineering traffic. Let’s avoid it entirely, thereby preventing the closures. This brings benefits, as compared to letting them enact closures. First, it shows incredible goodwill and community engagement. Next, we can voluntarily avoid this terrain starting as soon as this season, saving bureaucratic hassle. Let the biologists focus on biology, not bureaucracy. Finally, if the science proves that our impact isn’t as dramatic as feared, we can quickly, with no bureaucracy, lift the voluntary closure.
It will be argued that the “science isn’t conclusive”. Isn’t there a logical fallacy therein? Crisis science is inherently inconclusive. We can address the problem before reaching a conclusion (in this case, the “conclusion” of this sheep population).
How biased are we in this case? The activity about which we are deeply passionate is also a very tenuous one. What lights our fire is inherently fleeting, ephemeral, and incredibly rare. Geographically, temporally, and so on. We protect our mountain moments with great passion for good reason. But how much around us must sacrifice for those mountain moments?
There will be “slippery slope” arguments. There will be references to the unfair impact on backcountry skiers. There will be arguments about “interfering with nature”. How many, though, of these arguments are tied to the same biases referenced immediately above? In ski risk management, we are learning to recognize our cognitive biases. It is time to recognize our biases in other parts of the ski experience as well.
Let me close with a critical thinking prompt on one common discussion point among skiers. Skiers have long observed Teton bighorn and their behavior. Skiers probably directly observe Teton winter sheep more than any other group (including biologists). Skiers, also more than any other group, are likely to be impacted by management decisions. As citizens, we know how fraught anecdotal observations from a stake-holding group can be, especially when those reported observations fly in the face of scientists’ findings.
To be direct, if a skier sees a sheep and concludes that their presence does not stress them, does that have more weight than a biologist reporting that sheep are stressed by human contact?
Jed Porter is a passionate adventure skier and all-around mountain professional. His primary work is as a mountain guide, skiing and climbing all over the Americas and beyond. Learn more about him at jed.ski
If you would like to learn more about the proposed ski zone closures in and around Grand Teton National Park, click here.