Teton Range Bighorn Sheep and Winter Recreation

A collaborative working group has spent the past 30 years exploring ways to save the endangered population of bighorn sheep in the Tetons.

Photo Credit: Josh Metten (On the ancestral lands of the Shoshone-Bannock, Eastern Shoshone, Cheyenne and other Nations)

WWA supports the Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group’s recommendations to the managing agencies of the Teton Mountain Range in order to protect and preserve bighorn sheep populations.

The Teton Range offers excellent wildlife habitat and spectacular opportunities for outdoor recreation. Land and wildlife managers strive to balance those values. Over the past thirty years, a variety of agencies, biologists, and conservation groups have worked together in a collaborative aimed to preserve a balance between winter recreation and endangered bighorn sheep — an integral and unique genetic species native only to the character of this magical mountain range.

What’s the problem?

Bighorn sheep have occupied the Tetons for thousands of years, but today this native population is small, isolated from other nearby populations, and at risk of local extinction. The population occupies high elevation areas of the Teton Mountain Range in Grand Teton National Park (GRTE), the Caribou-Targhee (CTNF), and the Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) — all prime areas of winter recreation.

In the last decade, the herd has declined nearly 50%, from 100-125 animals to about 60-80, and is comprised of two distinct populations with apparently little genetic exchange between them or surrounding herds. 

Human development and pressures (such as expanding and increasing winter recreation, risk of respiratory disease introduction, competition with mountain goats, and climate change) have cut off this herd from traditional low-elevation winter range and from other bighorn sheep herds. Long-term fire suppression has also affected habitat quality and blocked access to some low elevation winter ranges.

The Working Group considers this population to be at a breaking point where management agencies must take additional conservation actions soon to secure important habitats and maintain/increase population size.

How does this affect winter backcountry adventure?

Scientists have documented that Teton bighorn sheep avoid areas frequented by winter recreationists. In some cases, sheep have effectively lost up to 30% of the good winter habitat in the high country because of this displacement. Bighorn sheep that share winter habitat with humans frequently move to avoid them, burning energy, which can result in poor reproduction and starvation.

The loss and alteration of important winter habitats have made the herd especially vulnerable; additional factors such as winter backcountry recreation and expanding mountain goat populations now pressure the herd’s survival even further.

Through the collaborative process, the community identified 57,266 acres of high-value backcountry ski terrain in the Teton Range, with 79% in GRTE, 16% in CTNF, and 5% in BTNF. Currently, 3% of this habitat is protected from human disturbance in the winter.

Recently, the Working Group held a public virtual meeting to present and discuss its Final Report and recommendations. We saw conversation on social media in the days leading up to the meeting about whether proposed closures were too much of a sacrifice for skiers. 

Before you form an opinion, we recommend you watch the recorded meeting, read the report, and share your specific thoughts and perspectives with the working group.

Our Take-Away

Ultimately, we have a responsibility to ensure the future of the Teton Range Bighorn Sheep and support the resource managers’ work to do so as well. We hope the responsible agencies will take the great amount of work and detail the Working Group has put into these recommendations and make decisions that protect bighorn sheep from all the factors threatening their existence in the Tetons.

We also hope that specific timelines and metrics will be developed that will allow the backcountry ski and snowboard community and the scientific community to work together to collect relevant data and track the effectiveness of any closures that might be applied, and to re-evaluate over time what’s working and how well the herd is rebounding.

Again, there’s still time to share specific thoughts and perspectives with the working group before the relevant agencies (Grand Teton National Park, Bridger-Teton National Forest and Caribou-Targhee National Forest) begin the process of making official decisions.

We’ll continue to keep our Alliance updated as this process continues.

Watch Denizens of the Steep

As backcountry skiing grows in popularity—and more people are headed into the wilderness than ever before—we must become aware of our environment, understand our impact and take measures to recreate responsibly. Denizens of the Steep explores the impact of backcountry recreation on migratory sheep, with professional ski mountaineer/guide Kim Havell and others discussing the importance of protecting and conserving the wild places in which we roam.

by Melinda Quick