Photo by Josh Metten (@joshmettenphoto)
On April 20, 2022, Grand Teton National Park published a scoping notice for its much anticipated Bighorn Sheep Winter Habitat Protection Plan.
If you’ve been following the conversation, you know that the Teton bighorn sheep population is small and has been shown to be sensitive to pressures from backcountry winter recreation.
In an effort to address these issues, the Teton Bighorn Sheep Working Group convened a series of public workshops in 2020 to share information about bighorn sheep and to gather information from users on winter backcountry recreation.
Subsequent to those meetings, Grand Teton National Park, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and Caribou-Targhee National Forest implemented seasonal voluntary closures in areas deemed of highest importance for bighorn sheep.
Now, the Park Service is seeking public input as it develops a long-term plan for protecting bighorn sheep winter habitat within Grand Teton National Park. The two national forests are not part of this current planning effort.
Why is this important?
The purpose of this planning effort is to improve the Teton bighorn sheep population’s chances for long-term survival by protecting and, where feasible, restoring its winter habitat in Grand Teton National Park.
The Park Service’s “Proposed Action” is a little different from what they usually propose for this type of situation: the Park Service doesn’t have a specific plan they’ve presented that they want the public to react to; instead, they want to hear your ideas for what kind of alternative management strategies should be considered and what the final plan should include. Your comments now will help to shape the new plan.
They’re looking for ideas that fall into 3 broad categories:
- Public Outreach and Education. Share your ideas for how Grand Teton National Park can educate winter recreationists about Teton bighorn sheep. Think: signage (specifically language and placement), maps and user apps, and ways to reach the public at home, in town, at the trailhead, and in the backcountry.
- Monitoring and Research. What do you think the Park Service should do to better understand this issue moving forward, and what kind of monitoring is needed to ensure the habitat protection plan is achieving its intended purpose? Think about ways to study bighorn sheep and winter recreation use in the Tetons. Are there (new or existing) tools that could help with monitoring? Partnerships? What questions would you like to see answered to advance the state of knowledge around this issue?
- Habitat Management. The Park Service will be evaluating seasonal access restrictions for the areas depicted on the map below (linked here):
Under the new plan, seasonal access restrictions will be in place December 1 – April 30 annually. The areas under consideration are the areas within Grand Teton National Park that were designated as voluntary closures this past season, plus an additional area in Avalanche Canyon.
The Park Service wants your input on how these areas should be managed.
This does not necessarily mean a one-size-fits-all approach across the entire range. Land management agencies have historically utilized a number of different tools for habitat protection, including but not limited to “hard” closures, voluntary closures, designated travel routes, and limited entry (via permits).
In your comments, please provide thoughtful and site-specific ideas for how the Park Service can protect these bighorn sheep winter habitat areas while providing backcountry winter recreation opportunities where feasible. In addition, let the Park Service know if there are additional areas that you believe should be evaluated for seasonal access restrictions.
Wait, didn’t I just take a survey about this?
Earlier this month, WWA and our partners at Teton Backcountry Alliance, Teton Climbers Coalition, American Alpine Club, and Access Fund, published an online survey for backcountry skiers, riders, and climbers to share their perspectives on Teton bighorn sheep conservation and backcountry winter recreation.
The survey helps us to better understand our community’s concerns, priorities, and ideas regarding Teton bighorn sheep and will help to inform our scoping comments we submit to the Park Service. This comment period is also an opportunity for you to share your ideas in more detail and help shape the final decision.
If you’ve taken the survey already, thank you. If you haven’t, please do so. We strongly encourage you to submit a comment directly to the Park Service in addition to taking the survey! While we will be sharing the survey data with the Park Service, they also want to hear directly from the public.
What comes next?
After this scoping period, the Park Service will suggest several different management strategies (alternatives) based off the public comments received this spring. These alternatives – and their anticipated environmental effects – will be analyzed in an Environmental Assessment. The public will have an opportunity to review and comment on the Environmental Assessment later this year. Then, the Park Service will consider those comments, along with the effects analysis of the different alternatives, and develop a final plan.
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