When the love of skiing endangers wildlife

A world-renowned athlete stopped skiing in sensitive areas. Can she convince others to do the same?

 

On a perfect day, Rendezvous Peak, a nearly 11,000-foot wind-scoured limestone ridge in the Teton Range, offers spectacular backcountry skiing. Steep lines cut off the top as skiers slice through cliff bands called the Martini Shoots, drop into a sweeping bowl and flow into a canyon of ramps and gullies.

In places like this, Kim Havell has built her life. Once considered the nation’s pre-eminent female ski mountaineer, Havell has skied on seven continents and made first ascents on four. She moved to Jackson, Wyoming, in 2012, partly to ski mountains like Rendezvous Peak.

But the top of the ridge is also home to one of the West’s most unique bighorn sheep herds. The Teton herd has eked out a living here for thousands of years, nibbling dried wildflower tops and conserving calories while waiting for spring. Now, the ancient herd, down to about 100 sheep, is on the cusp of extinction.

According to biologists, today’s elite backcountry skiers are one of the top threats now facing the herd.

And, according to biologists, today’s elite backcountry skiers — by venturing deeper into the backcountry in growing numbers during the pivotal winter months — are one of the top threats now facing the herd.

When Havell first realized her sport’s impact, she resolved to change the way she skied, avoiding the fragile herd even if that meant staying away from some of her favorite places. “We’re trying to get into more and more remote zones with our gear and knowledge,” Havell, 42, said from her home in Wilson, Wyoming. “We’re pushing wildlife out of their habitat.”

Lately, she’s seized upon a mission bigger than herself: convincing the skeptical guides and skiers whose livelihood and passions revolve around skiing in the Tetons to do the same. But there’s a problem: The skiing community has been slow to change its behavior, and time is running out to help the bighorn herd rebound.

A bighorn sheep in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Josh Metten

RESEARCHERS ESTIMATE that about 1.5 million bighorns once roamed the Western U.S. and Canada. Then came market hunting, habitat loss and disease, and now, only about 85,000 range in isolated groups around the West. One of those is the Teton herd. The sheep can see for miles, and any perceived danger sends them packing, burning precious calories in the process.

Biologists like Aly Courtemanch, with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, have studied the intersection of backcountry skiing and bighorns for years. Courtemanch tracked the movement of ewes and 700 backcountry skiing trips and found that not only did sheep abandon areas disturbed by skiers, they rarely returned. “Winter recreation — where the snow enables people to go wherever they want — causes this unpredictability for an animal,” Courtemanch said. “They don’t know where you will pop up, so they avoid the area altogether.”

Technological aids like Google Earth and Fat Maps, an app that lets users follow its contributors’ backcountry routes, have enabled more skiers to push deeper and more easily into steep, rugged terrain. Some areas have been closed to winter recreation, however, and Jackson’s backcountry skier community worries that its range is already shrinking. That makes even casual talk of further restrictions controversial.

“It’s hard for the general public to wrap their heads around (the fact that) a skier walking slower than molasses up the hill will be the thing that pushes them over the edge.”

Skiers are more aware of their potential impact, but that doesn’t mean that they voluntarily avoid bighorn winter range outside of closure areas. Thomas Turiano, an author and skiing legend in northwest Wyoming, says he has seen sheep bolt while in the backcountry, including on Rendezvous Peak. But he’s reluctant to accept how big an impact that really has. “Sure, if we scare them away, they’re burning energy. But is that the cause of their decline?” Turiano said.

Similarly, other prominent backcountry skiers have questioned their collective impact. Adam Fabrikant, a ski guide who is sometimes called the “Mayor of the Tetons” because of how much time he spends in the mountains, is one of them. He says he tries to change his plans if he sees sheep, but he also feels that skiers are being unfairly blamed.

Both Fabrikant and Turiano say it’s difficult to accept that skiers have an outsized impact — more than condos, highways and using helicopters to kill invasive mountain goats — on the bighorn herd. “It’s hard for the general public to wrap their heads around (the fact that) a skier walking slower than molasses up the hill will be the thing that pushes them over the edge,” Fabrikant said.

Still, Havell, a deeply respected figure in Jackson’s skier community, hopes that she can convince more recreationists to compromise. She agrees that snow sports aren’t solely responsible for the bighorns’ problems, but she thinks humans can do more to control their impact, particularly when it comes to avoiding the sheep. To boost action within the community, she’s partnered with Turiano and others to create a checklist for guides and skiers, advising them to stay away from the top of windswept peaks, avoid known sheep locations, scan for the animals and turn around or change your route if you spot one.

Many listen to these recommendations, but others oppose the idea of more restrictions. And while awareness may be increasing, some still hesitate to report bighorn sightings for fear of additional closures. Havell, too, worries about losing access to the mountains she loves. She craves deep powder and untouched slopes, but is willing to give them up if it means saving the herd.

“Some of these animal populations will disappear in front of us,” she said, “and we had an opportunity to prevent it.” 

Christine Peterson has written about wildlife and the environment for the past decade from her home in Wyoming. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...
  • DIRECTOR OF PEOPLE AND ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE - HR
    Career Opportunity: Director of People and Organizational Culture Do you have interest in approaching organizational culture from a place of creativity and curiosity? Do you...