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Know the West

Parks test skiers' green resolve

Backcountry recreators asked to give bighorn sheep some elbow-room


JACKSON, Wyo. - Perhaps no place better typifies America's beloved public-lands playground than Yellowstone and Teton national parks. The jagged peaks of the Teton Range lure climbers and skiers. Yellowstone, the world's first national park, draws campers, motorists, skiers and snowmobilers. Each of the parks sees more than 3 million visitors each year.

So many people come here, in fact, that government officials are struggling to protect wildlife from them. One of the most drastic moves was a recent Park Service decision to ban snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, starting in 2003-2004 (HCN, 3/27/00: Parks rev up to ban snowmobiles).

The snowmobile ban had many backcountry skiers raising their beers to toast the Park Service. Skiers and conservationists have long argued that snowmobiles disrupt wildlife and pollute the mountain air.

But some of those toasts turned to grumbles when skiers read the fine print in the Park Service document banning snowmobiles. Included in a footnote in the massive study is a plan to give backcountry skiers the boot from some Teton peaks and ridges to protect bighorn sheep. The move has upset some skiers, and challenged their reputations as respectful conservationists.

A balancing act

Beginning next year, Grand Teton officials plan to close large parts of popular Mount Hunt and Prospectors Mountain, near the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, as well as four peaks in the remote northern Tetons. The plan aims to protect the park's sheep herd, which has held steady at about 100 animals in recent years.

"We want to have a viable population of bighorn sheep," says park planner Bob Rossman, "and we know that one thing that affects that population is backcountry travel."

Park biologist Steve Cain says he and his colleagues have watched the Teton sheep herd for the last 20 years. "When we drew those closures, we were trying to come up with something that was meaningful for sheep and for long-term conservation, while minimizing the effect on people who want to use those areas for recreation."

Backcountry skiers, however, argue that the Park Service sneaked the closures through without consulting the public. "It was very high-handed of them," says Kelly, Wyo., resident Callum MacKay. "They need to be more frank with the constituents. They just pay lip service to democracy."

Jackson resident Brian Ladd, who has been skiing in Grand Teton for about seven years, adds that by closing more park terrain, officials are narrowing the opportunity for skiers to have a pristine backcountry experience. He says the closures in the north are unnecessary because few people recreate there in the winter.

"It is ridiculous to close areas of the park that see very little traffic," he says. "I cannot imagine that the amount of travel in the northern areas is significant."

Biologists say back off

Not every skier is grousing. Conservation biologist Michael Whitfield has spent 30 years studying the Teton sheep herd. He says he no longer skis in sheep habitat and supports the closures.

"Bighorn sheep are the symbol of the Teton Range," he says. "To me, they really represent the range. They are something we need to work together to conserve."

University of Nevada, Reno, biology professor Joel Berger also calls on skiers to respect the park's decision. Berger, who has studied bighorn sheep for 20 years, says the Grand Teton herd is "highly vulnerable to extinction."

To survive the harsh winters, sheep must conserve their energy, he says, and stick close to areas where snow is shallow and they can get to sparse vegetation. When skiers disturb animals, he says, they burn precious energy reserves. Spooked sheep can starve before springtime, and also stand a greater chance of being killed in avalanches.

Biologists and park staffers will have input on the final closure, but there will be no public comment period.

"This is the precautionary warning by government officials," says Berger. "If sheep in the Tetons go extinct, it will be one more scar on our landscape of conservation failures."

The author writes for the Jackson Hole News.

You can contact ...

  • Grand Teton National Park, 307/739-3300;
  • Joel Berger, stationed at Teton National Park, 307/734-8241.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Rachel Odell