WildSnow op-eds come from community members.
By Mark Smiley
Relevant bullet points before diving in:
-Dodge Ram trucks display the head of a male bighorn sheep. They live across the West. Herds are estimated at 7000 Bighorn Sheep in Colorado, 6500 in Wyoming, 5250 in Montana. “The latest science shows that “bighorn sheep” is one species, with three living subspecies: the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep [live in the Tetons], the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep —formerly called the California bighorn sheep, and the desert bighorn sheep” . “The Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep was listed as an endangered species on January 3, 2000”
-In Grand Teton National Park (GTNP), two bighorn sheep herds total ~125 animals.
-These two sheep herds have “never been extirpated or augmented.” Meaning the herd never died off completely, nor have there been transplanted sheep from other areas to “beef up” the herd numbers. They are the Original Gangsta’ herd (Latin scientific term).
-Winter closures for bighorn sheep have been established in the Grand Teton zone for the past 23+ winters (Static Peak, Prospectors Mountain, Mt Hunt aka Granite Canyon)
–Fifty remaining Rocky Mountain Goats are considered “invasive” in GTNP and are being removed (killed) to decrease habitat pressure on the bighorn sheep, and reduce the chance of getting the sheep sick.
–A 2014 thesis paper, by Alyson Courtemanch (Masters student at Univ. of Wyoming and member of the Teton Sheep Working Group) is the primary research “pro-closure” proponents cite when making the point that backcountry skiers do negatively impact (stress) bighorn sheep. In this study, wildlife biologists GPS collared 28 bighorn sheep for three years. Three of the collars malfunctioned and provided no data. Avalanches killed 4 of 28. Skiers carried GPS units, and the tracks are graphed in the study.
-Bighorn sheep from the two herds (125 animals) have been shot by hunters. One tag is issued per year, when the animals cross into hunting Area 6 that borders GTNP.
-Big game hunting in Wyoming generates $224,000,000, according to this paper.
-To my knowledge, no end dates or sheep herd population goals have been given to lift the closures. This makes closures permanent in my interpretation.
-Only 5% of high value ski terrain is proposed by the working group to be closed. This stat is misleading and subjective. The working group proposes increasing the existing closures 15X the current area. During the working group meetings, I’m told that the establishment of “high value ski terrain” was not formalized in any type of vote or poll, and the term just came to be. One person might value steep couloirs, and the other might value mellow remote terrain.
-In the hundreds of days I’ve ski toured in GTNP, I’ve seen bighorn sheep three times. Jed Porter was with me during two of those special sightings. They are really amazing animals.
As a short time resident, and long time fan of Grand Teton National Park, it is very important to share some thoughts regarding these potential closures. I am a guy who truly values the opportunity to travel in wild and remote places. Grand Teton National Park, in the wintertime, is the best place in the lower 48 to find such places, while simultaneously enjoying some of the best snow on the best terrain. Winter here is world class.
Wildlife closures are sometimes required. I think of the proposed closures to protect Teton sheep as the land manager’s 10-pound sledgehammer: It’s got a lot of punch, it’s imprecise, and whatever it hits is permanently impacted. Teton sheep survival could be addressed simply by using a more precise tool, the finishing hammer with light hits precisely where you need them. Hits like removing the domestic sheep from their close proximity to reduce chances of infection, check. Shooting half the mountain goat population, check (okay, this one is the 24oz framing hammer, I hate that this is happening). Maintaining the existing winter closures, check. Controlled burns to stimulate more habitat, check. Bring in healthy sheep from the Missouri River Breaks Montana herd to curb inbreeding that causes high mortality in their offspring, no check. This translocating suggestion came up during the working group meeting, and was essentially ignored and moved on.
My biggest concern with closures is that when people aren’t allowed to have amazing, low impact, human powered experiences, known as ski touring, in our public lands, they lose reverence for this land. When held dearly, you get to touch it. If the sledgehammer analogy didn’t work, think of closures as a Star Wars Chewbacca toy that an awkward 40-something displays on his mantle, still in the box, in mint condition. One day it will be worth so much money. Looking only, no touching.
I think National Parks, and public lands in general, are more like Woody from Toy Story, and collectively we are the kid. You have many fond memories with the toy, you care deeply for it, and if someone is playing too rough, you quickly correct that behavior. But you don’t put Woody on a shelf for protection. And if we play well, that day will come when our kids will experience that same joy, and our grandkids too. And I mean really experience GTNP by skinning up the drainage behind Static Peak, and touring around to discover Veiled Peak and seeing where dad almost died on that couloir on Wister. These places, proposed to be closed, are special. Less so, if they are placed on a mantle, left in their box to maintain resale value.
Closure is maybe tolerable in the short term. If the working group stated something like “once the herd is XXX animals, all closures will be lifted” that would be a restriction with a goal. I could get behind that. But as the pro-closure movement persists, more and more wild places, so unique to the West, will become off-limits, with no indication of a reopening date. This notion saddens the explorer in me. Maybe you too?
You are part owner of our public land. As such, we all need to be educated on how to play with the toy without breaking it. Desire for this education is born from caring. Caring is born from having a wonderful experience in the mountains. Please, go on a ski tour to Veiled Peak, see nobody all day in the wonderfully beautiful Avalanche Canyon, and you will care about keeping access open to this unique and beautiful valley. From that care, you might want to learn more about how to protect your access, so maybe 20 years from now you can do that amazing tour again, sharing it with someone you love.
The pro-closure mentality, as I understand it, is something like, “humans only destroy what they touch” and/or “If the scientist say so, I believe them cause they know more about this than me.” Or in the words of Alyson Courtemanch, her master’s thesis paper is an example of “real conservation“. As if conservation that doesn’t involve closure is pseudo-conservation. This thesis paper has the general vibe (if thesis papers can possess vibes?) that less people, good. No people, best. And on the one hand, she’s absolutely right. If all people just died off, non-people would thrive. The trouble is no one would be there to appreciate, nor care, about that victory.
I’m admittedly late to this conversation that’s been going on for a while now about the sheep. But I’m also a bit neurotic, so the past week, with the aid of many Instagram story comments, I dug in. And from my perspective, closure is an answer, but it’s neither the best nor most effective way to help this herd. It’s not even in the top five. And permanent closure, which is what is on the table, is simply not acceptable.
But in good faith, as a steward and part owner of this special Park, I commit to fully rerouting if I see a bighorn sheep while touring, so as to not impact these fine animals. Moreover, I want to give a gift to any wildlife biologists working on the Teton bighorn project. You can learn about avalanche safety and backcountry skiing & technical ski mountaineering via my comprehensive online video courses for free. These will help equip you with the skills so you can explore and study the herds in their winter habitat.
Experience = Care = Educate = Sustain = Future Experience
About Mark Smiley
Mark Smiley is “just passing through” Jackson Wyoming. As an internationally certified mountain guide, he has had the privilege to see many beautiful places around the world. Since Covid, teaching mountain skills via entertaining online video tutorials on www.mtnSense.com is his current muse.