Recreating Responsibly in the Tetons this Winter

We strongly encourage all Teton winter backcountry travelers to help protect bighorn sheep by observing this winter’s voluntary closures.

Photo provided by Mark Gocke via TetonSheep.Org

WWA strongly encourages all Teton winter backcountry travelers to help protect bighorn sheep by observing this winter’s voluntary closures.

The Teton Range is legendary in the world of backcountry skiing. It’s also home to a diminishing population of bighorn sheep that have called the range home since time immemorial. Because of human development in the valley bottoms, the sheep have lost their traditional migration routes and winter ranges and now eke out a living in the heights of the Tetons all year long. With more people than ever backcountry skiing and splitboarding, our wintertime activities represent yet another challenge to Teton bighorn sheep survival. This winter, people have been asked to voluntarily avoid certain areas in the Tetons to protect bighorn sheep. 

During the past year, the Teton Bighorn Sheep Working Group, with support from Winter Wildlands Alliance and the Teton Backcountry Alliance, facilitated a collaborative process to document perspectives on bighorn sheep and winter recreation.  That process resulted in the release of recommendations for seasonal closures along with other management actions to protect bighorn sheep on critical winter range while minimizing impacts on recreational access. Subsequent to the report’s release, agencies gathered additional input from a small group of experienced Teton backcountry skiers and climbers to refine the Working Group’s recommended closure maps, and recently released voluntary closures for the winter of 2021-2022.

Ecosystem stewardship and access for backcountry winter recreationists are core principles to our mission. Meeting the first objective sometimes requires making compromises on the second. Following this principle, we recognize that the Teton bighorn sheep population is critically low, and action is needed to allow the population to recover to a level that insures its long-term sustainability. We also recognize the significant role Teton backcountry winter travel plays in the social, spiritual, and physical well-being of many Alliance members, and fully support winter backcountry recreation in a manner that is compatible with the conservation of Teton bighorn sheep and other wildlife.  

This spring the Park Service, Forest Service, and Wyoming Game and Fish Department will review this winter’s voluntary closures and initiate a process to determine a longer-term management strategy for bighorn sheep and winter recreation.  As a way of contributing to that process, we will be working with Teton Backcountry Alliance, Teton Climbers Coalition, the American Alpine Club, and the Access Fund to survey winter backcountry skiers and climbers about their perspectives on this topic through an on-line survey that will ask about spatially explicit knowledge of the closure areas and recommendations for winter visitor management that contribute to sheep conservation. As a part of the survey, we’ll ask for ideas on how best to advance the state of knowledge on Teton bighorn sheep ecology, and how citizen science can contribute to this process. We anticipate the on-line survey going live in the coming weeks. 

Our organizations encourage all winter travelers to remember that stewardship of the Teton ecosystem, including Teton bighorn sheep, is our collective responsibility. We are encouraged by the many members of our backcountry community who now serve as stewards of the Teton ecosystem and are working towards sustaining our mountain environments for future generations. 

Deep snow and exciting, unique terrain are what we live for as winter adventurers. But these same elements – combined with cold temperatures, a scarce food supply and the need to conserve energy – make it really hard for wildlife, especially large mammals, to survive the long, cold, harsh winters. When we disturb wildlife in the winter, our presence increases their stress levels and forces them to expend precious energy by relocating to areas where foraging and security coverage is not optimal. This often leads to poor health, low reproduction, and even death, furthering overall population declines.

Winter closures exist to protect critical habitat for a variety of species – and are not new to the Tetons. As an Alliance of people who care about winter and the wildlife that inhabit our favorite backcountry ski areas, we have a responsibility to know before we go which backcountry areas serve as critical winter habitat and migration pathways for wildlife as well as those that are closed seasonally to protect wildlife.

Want to learn more about what’s at risk? This 7-minute film, Denizens of the Steep, explores the impact of backcountry recreation on migratory sheep, with professional ski mountaineer/guide/WWA Ambassador Kim Havell and others discussing the importance of protecting and conserving the wild places in which we roam.