By Elizabeth Koutrelakos
I consider myself both a conservationist and a backcountry snowboarder. Working for the National Park Service for over a decade, I spent most of my time as a trail crew leader, teaching high schoolers the basics of conservation and trail maintenance. I want to continue to see wildlife thrive here and support the community in connecting with land and wilderness.
During my work for the Park Service, I witnessed many mistakes and resources then put into correcting those mistakes; I saw a great effort to preserve ecosystems while maintaining visitor experience. During the winter of 2021, a recent blunder of note came when the Park gave less than twenty-four hours notice and closed major ski zones within the Park, including Mount Moran, to shoot 36 goats from a helicopter. The state halted this action due to the intervention of Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, after the state wildlife commission voiced objections and general concern over wasting meat. The Park has since implemented a goat culling program where volunteer hunters can apply for a permit and then have six weeks to hunt these invasive mountain goats that adversely impact bighorn sheep habitat. Public lands and the people that administer them, I believe, have good intentions… and, like most things with human interventions, there are major successes and major failures.
The bighorn sheep and proposed ski closures in the Tetons have fired up emotions on both sides, with collaborative community meetings ending amid a global pandemic. Out of this process, recommendations were made for closures to skiers in areas throughout Grand Teton National Park to protect a specific herd of sheep on the verge of extinction. I attended every in-person meeting, and then COVID sent the meetings to Zoom. The Teton Sheep Working Group invited 20 of the 150 people in attendance to participate. I don’t know who chose them, but I was not one of them. The most recent October 2021 meeting was similar to the in-person meetings; public comments and questions were promised 60 minutes of time, but were cut to 35 minutes with no reasons given.
At the end of the evening, a limited number of people were allowed to share their opinions. Thus, I would like to raise some questions and possible solutions that arose during the collaborative process to inspire people to think critically about the future of sheep, skiing and public lands.
Concerning the current goat cull, would it be possible to extend the hunt into winter to help decrease the goat population? This cull takes place during prime elk hunting season, a time when the Tetons are covered in just enough snow to make access difficult, but not enough to travel with ease by skis or snowshoes. Extending the time frame could allow those who elk hunt to hunt goats when elk season closes. Larger groups of goats are found in Leigh and Snowshoe Canyons when accessibility is easiest from mid-winter to spring, as snow covers enough of the foliage and boulder fields, making these areas accessible by skinning. I can think of a handful of folks who would be interested in combining their ski skills with hunting.
The Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group (2021) recommendations state that the proposed closures are only 5% of “high valued ski terrain.” How was terrain rated high elevation ski terrain when there were no quantitative surveys within the ski community? From my experience attending every in-person outreach meeting, the community recommendations were incongruent both with what I observed and the feedback received from the ski community regarding the details of high value terrain. For example, one person would state a specific ski line was a Teton classic, while another person would say that they never skied that line.
It was also evident from the recent meetings that not all voices or ski terrain choices carried the same weight. Beverly Boynton, who has been skiing in the park for 40 years, said, “My ski background in the Tetons over a number of decades is in doing high elevation traverses and a handful of winter ascents on peaks. And I do think that they’re valuable. But they differ from the people in the group, who are more extreme modern skiers who did voice what order of the importance of routes from their point of view. And I know I and some others did speak up on high elevation traverses. But I think we were a little quiet in our speaking up,” said Beverly Boynton during the October 20 working group meeting.
Would it be possible to survey skiers to determine an accurate estimate of those who believe their voices may not have been identified and considered in this process? Conducting a simple online survey would help quantify the perspectives of people uncomfortable speaking in public or those with various health or safety-related reasons and people with disabilities who could not attend the meeting.
During the most recent meeting, the working group noted that a hunter could harvest a single ram annually. (This is a lottery-based/permitted hunt.) What do scientists estimate the impact is on the sheep population from backcountry skiers per year? Would it be possible for skiers or a nonprofit to “buy” that sheep tag and, in turn, save a sheep and the herd from that hunt-related stress? This action might offset any skier related impacts.
Inbreeding depression, a term describing reduced fertility and survival rates in offspring of closely related mammals, has been shown to have a significant effect on endangered bighorn sheep populations (Johnson et al., 2011). The Teton sheep population is small. Given this small population, how is inbreeding depression being accounted for, and what are future estimates for inbreeding depression given this diminished population?
Collaring sheep can also have time and cost barriers and increase the risk of capture myopathy on sheep. Capture myopathy is a non-infectious stress-induced muscular degenerative disease that animals can develop after capture and can lead to paralysis, heart attacks and death. Can we consider having backcountry skiers collect stool samples to allow an additional, less intrusive and more cost-effective way to monitor stress in the bighorn sheep population? Is it possible to measure corticosterone levels in stool samples through this method? Corticosterone levels fluctuate throughout the year (Ostovar, 1998); perhaps gathering this information in winter will fill in some of the gaps regarding seasonal stress levels in sheep. Continued evaluation and more in-depth collaboration with the ski community will increase the body of data to help us better understand the relationship between sheep stress and human presence.
Foot traffic causes a disturbance but does not cause a disturbance when sheep are habituated to human traffic (Ostovar, 1998). How do we distinguish if sheep are, or are not, habituated to human traffic? How habituated are GTNP sheep to human traffic versus road traffic versus air traffic?
Backcountry skiers depart in the early morning, travel during good weather conditions and slowly meander up the hills. Their movement is inconsistent with wolves or mountain lions. However, the recent study points to human presence’s influence on sheep movement (Courtemanch, 2014). Previous studies have shown that energy deficient sheep use behavioral compensation and modifications to reduce energy expenditure, adjust their activity levels, and adjust their environment to offset that deficit (Denryter et al. 2021). Given this, what is the measurable impact of backcountry skiing on the current sheep population? Was the population positively impacted during the COVID Grand Teton closure in 2020? Was there any statistical significance in sheep deaths or impact on sheep movement during this closure?
Air traffic and natural predators (wolves, mountain lions) are some of the most consistent disturbances for bighorn sheep and account for the majority of all disturbances (Ostovar, 1998; Wehausen and Jones, 2014). What is the NPS doing to address the flight traffic?
The threat of bighorn sheep extinction has been a long term issue for the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep. Estimated to have been over 1000 sheep pre-colonization, those sheep herds declined to nine herds in the early 1900s, and by the mid-1900s, only five herds remained. Those sheep populations declined due to a combination of factors, including diseases from domesticated livestock, predation, habitat loss, and hunting. In 1995, there were only 100 known sheep, and the federal government listed them under the Endangered Species Act. By 2016, the population rebounded to an estimated 600 animals.
Significant threats to bighorn sheep are identified as “Disease from domestic sheep and goats, predation, inbreeding depression (low genetic diversity), and small population size (causing increased effects from weather, climate, avalanches and other unpredictable natural events) (CADFW, 2021).” In California’s Inyo National Forest, part of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep range, the Forest Service found that closures did not inhibit the decline of that forest’s bighorn sheep. The Forest Service decided to reopen the closures as described in the statement below.
“Since this listing the population has grown and continued to expand into its historic range. Continued monitoring by the California Department of Fish and Game and Dr. John Wehausen and other researchers, has shown human impacts to bighorn sheep, specifically within the Zoological Areas, are not causing negative impacts that would impede recovery of the species. Their conclusions have shown that while bighorn sheep may react to humans within these areas, population numbers and use of these areas has not declined (Upham, 2010).”
Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park also did something similar.
“Following the lead of the U.S. Forest Service, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in the early 1970s closed ‘the female/lamb range of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep . . . to all pack animals and to off-trail travel by humans [in the national park].’ This closure was later codified in the Superintendent’s Compendium. The associated map identified an area representing the known range of females and lambs within King Canyon National Park. Because off-trail travel by pack stock is impractical along the crest of the Sierra Nevada and the occasional use by mountaineers and climbers does not pose a significant threat to bighorn sheep, and because the areas used by bighorn sheep will be in a state of flux for the indefinite future, the permanent closure was terminated in 2001, (CA/NV Operations Office, 2001).”
Why would instituting closures be different for GTNP? What is the process for determining whether the existing decade-old closures on Mt. Hunt and Prospector’s Peak impact increasing sheep populations? I believe this process is outlined in the Wilderness Act and Director’s order # 41 (USDOI, 2013), but I have not seen any follow-up about this process. In short, how is the government measuring the impact of current closures? How can we be sure there will be accountability in measuring the effectiveness of future closures?
In the proposed ski zone closures, the off-limit areas are often located on different aspects. Sometimes, having different snow aspects available, depending on changing conditions, allows options for skiers to move safely through terrain. Can the closures be reframed to allow skiers the ability to prioritize safety in changing conditions? Have we considered how closures may impact skiers’ judgement and decision-making processes if areas on different aspects are entirely closed? Can we consider voluntary closures dependent on sheep locations?
Courtemanch’s 2014 paper states that “Most recreation occurs in a diffuse, ‘spider web’ pattern across the landscape. Other studies have shown that this type of off-trail, unpredictable human activity elicits a stronger behavioral response from ungulates than does activity on established, predictable routes (Hamr 1988, Papouchis et al. 2001, Enggist-Dublin & Ingold 2003).”
As a backcountry skier, my experience tells me that there are limited safe routes to ascend and descend, for most Teton routes, due to mitigating overhead avalanche hazards: it is not a spiderweb pattern across the landscape. It seems there should be a way to communicate to the skiing and climbing community, recommended travel routes that minimize or eliminate sheep disturbance. Something similar to the well-worn summer trails in the Tetons, as opposed to completely closing large areas of terrain for an indeterminate amount of time.
The terrain in the southern end of the Tetons, where 78% of the people from the 2014 study used lift access at JHMR for their GPSed routes, is more conducive to a spider web of ski activities. But, there are more cliffs in the northern part of the range, limiting approaches and descents.
I used to sleep on top of the tram in the winters and noticed that bighorn sheep would gather at the tram dock. When people were absent in the morning, the area was highly used by bighorns. It’s likely something not spoken about because many Jackson skiers do not want the iconic tram to close. Are people aware of this? It is inconsistent with the findings in the Courtemanch (2014) study, stating that sheep generally avoided areas where humans have recently traveled.
With this in mind, how do we foresee the continuous operation of the tram and Targhee’s expansion impacting the southern sheep? What is the estimated impact compared to that of a backcountry skier?
Seventy-eight percent of the recreationists surveyed in Courtemanch’s 2014 study were entering the backcountry via a lift. I am curious why a great deal of the proposed closed areas are located in zones inaccessible by those lifts. Additionally, there was limited to no data on the relationship between recreationists and northern sheep in that study, yet there are multiple proposed closures across from Jackson Lake. That same area has no limitations on the use of snowmobiles by ice fishermen (note, backcountry skiers, are not allowed to access terrain on Moran by crossing the lake on a snow machine.). What is the reasoning behind closing the north country with no limitations on existing mechanical use to access fishing spots on the lake?
I am for closing areas if necessary and supporting those closures if they will help preserve protected species. I hope we can develop measurable ways to continually assess the impact of backcountry users on the Teton sheep population.
I believe this is not a skier versus sheep issue; it is an issue of developing a collaborative plan and collaborating in the field to help gather more specific information. Closures of wilderness areas need to be approached with serious evaluation and specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals. I would like to see more of these types of goals outlined in the proposed plan before I give my support or opposition.
Elizabeth Koutrelakos began digging drains and working on trails in the Tetons when she was 18. After learning to climb and snowboard and general mountain walking to dos, Wyoming grew on her and she never left. She currently works as an LCSW and owns a mental health counseling practice specializing in mountain accidents, social justice and outdoor risk management training. She also runs an introductory youth backcountry program that teaches kids the ins and outs of backcountry skiing.
California/Nevada Operations Office. Recovery Plan for the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep, 2001. https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=27634&inline
California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Facts. Accessed October 26, 2021. https://wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Mammals/Bighorn-Sheep/Sierra-Nevada/Recovery-Program/Sheep-Facts
Courtemanch, A. Seasonal Habitat Selection and Impacts of Backcountry Recreation on a Formerly Migratory Bighorn Sheep Population in Northwestern Wyoming, USA. M.S., Department of Zoology and Physiology, 2014. https://www.nps.gov/grte/learn/nature/upload/Courtemanch-MS-Thesis_Teton-bighorn-sheep_revised-opt.pdf
Denryter, K., German, T., Stephenson, K. Monteith,State- and context-dependent applications of an energetics model in free-ranging bighorn sheep,Ecological Modelling,Volume 440, 2021.
Gammons, D., J. L. Davis, D. W. German, K. Denryter, J. D. Wehausen and T. R. Stephenson. Predation impedes recovery of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (PDF). California Fish and Wildlife Special CESA. California Department of Fish and Wildlife; 2021.
Johnson, H. E., Mills, L. S., Wehausen, J. D. , Stephenson, T. R. and Luikart, G. Translating Effects of Inbreeding Depression on Component Vital Rates to Overall Population Growth in Endangered Bighorn Sheep (PDF). Conservation Biology, Volume 25, No. 6, 1240–1249. Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.; 2011.
Ostovar, K. Impacts of Human Activity on Bighorn Sheep in Yellowstone National Park. Fish and Wildlife Management; 1998. https://scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/handle/1/1996
Upham, P. Forest Service Proposes to Change Designation of Bighorn Sheep in Zoological Areas. 2010.
United States Department of the Interior. Director’s order #41. 2013. https://www.nps.gov/policy/DOrders/DO_41.pdf
Wehausen, J. D., and Jones F. L. The historical distribution of bighorn sheep in the Sierra Nevada, California (PDF). California Fish and Game 100(3):417-435; 2014.