THE NEWS: After years of collaborative effort, a working group releases its strategy for saving the remaining native bighorn sheep of the Teton Range in Idaho and Wyoming, proposing the winter closure of 21,233 acres to humans. Even though this only would affect about 2,000 acres of high quality skiing terrain, it’s still too much for some members of the winter recreation community.
CONTEXT: Bighorn sheep were once abundant across the Mountain West, migrating for miles to follow the forage. Habitat destruction, fragmentation of migratory paths, disease, climate change, competition from non-native and domesticated ungulates, and, well, humans in general, have shrunk the ungulates’ range and winnowed their numbers. The Teton Range’s bighorn sheep, hemmed in by humanity, stopped long-distance migration eight decades ago. The last remaining herd, numbering just 100 to 125 animals, is on the precipice of extirpation. In the 1990s, state and federal wildlife agencies, biologists, and advocates formed a working group to develop strategies to stave off its demise.
In the decades since, an additional threat has emerged: a growing number of recreational users going further and further into the backcountry — and the bighorn’s winter range. “Quiet,” non-motorized forms of recreation were once considered benign, but a growing body of research suggests even hiking and skiing can have a deleterious effect on wildlife.
To better understand these impacts, the Teton bighorn sheep working group teamed up with University of Wyoming biologists on a research project. The results — published by Alyson B. Courtemanch in her 2014 Masters thesis — were eye-opening:
We found that bighorn sheep avoided areas of backcountry recreation, even if those areas were otherwise relatively high quality habitat. Avoidance behavior resulted in up to a 30% reduction in available high quality habitat for some individuals. Bighorn sheep avoided areas with both low and high recreation use. … These results reveal that bighorn sheep appear to be sensitive to forms of recreation which people largely perceive as having minimal impact to wildlife, such as backcountry skiing.
Given the urgency of the situation, such a finding might warrant an immediate closure of all 45,278 acres of the sheep’s high-quality winter Teton range to human incursion. Such a move wouldn’t fly with large sectors of the backcountry community and the businesses that rely on it. So the working group launched a bottom-up, years-long collaborative process to develop a strategy.
The resulting compromise: A little less than half of the high-quality sheep range—or 21,233 acres—would be closed in winter. The closure would only affect about 2,000 acres, or 5 percent, of the 57,000 acres identified as high-quality ski terrain. Here’s the breakdown:
So, in other words, the skiers are getting 95 percent of what they want while the imperiled bighorn sheep get just 47 percent of what they need to survive. But are the skiers satisfied? Most, yes, or at least they are grudgingly accepting the outcome. But a vocal few are grousing about even this small sacrifice, as reported last week by Wyoming Public Radio:
“I just don’t feel the data you have justifies something this important as closing wilderness to humans,” said Nick Mestre of Driggs, Idaho, in an Oct. 20 public meeting. “I mean, that’s a tough one to swallow.”
Backcountry ski guide Zahan Billimoria “When we come to a place where humans become banned in perpetuity from being able to explore and travel in these remote corners of the range, then we really do lose something as a community that is more, I think—is a greater price than the benefit is.”
As you might expect, the outcry extends to the world of social media. Read the comments on the Instagram post below, if you dare (e.g. “Smells like old people and communism to me.” Another commenter suggests the closures are a ski area-driven conspiracy to get backcountry skiers back on the groomed slopes). The poster also tried to start a #freethetetons hashtag, which hasn’t exactly taken off, perhaps because it has more than one meaning.
To be fair, the social media back and forth also includes backcountry skiers who are supportive of the closure or who grudgingly accept the compromise. And opponents of the closure are probably correct in their assertions that developed ski areas and roads and hunting are bigger threats. Still, the unwillingness to give up even a sliver of terrain to help a nearly-extinct herd of wild animals reeks of the sort of access-greed that puts the “wreck” in “wreckreation.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise; it’s hardly the first time recreational users have pushed back against environmental preservation measures. Each year at about this time several trails near my hometown of Durango are closed for the season to give wildlife some space. And each year a few handfuls of hikers and runners and mountain bikers duck the gates and violate the closures, wildlife be damned — regardless of the fact that literally hundreds of miles of nearby trails remain open.
A couple of years ago, again in the recreation mecca of Durango, the Bureau of Land Management proposed permanently prohibiting mountain biking on a few trail segments that encroached on the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area, which provides elk and deer range and is a peregrine falcon nesting area. Though it would have affected a tiny fraction of the trails surrounding Durango — all of which remain open to bikes — and would have had the extra benefit of slightly reducing biker-pedestrian conflicts, which are on the rise, the powerful mountain biking community pushed back.
It is all reminiscent of a couple of decades ago, when federal agencies were trying to tackle the impacts of a growing number of snowmobilers, riding increasingly more powerful machines, on public lands in the San Juan Mountains around Silverton. Not only was it affecting the wildlife and the landscape, but also led to conflicts with the burgeoning number of non-motorized backcountry users.
The process began with proposals similar to those seen elsewhere: One side of the highway would be open to all use, the other only to non-motorized use, for example. Snowmobilers balked, so the proposals were gradually whittled down until, in the end, the agencies banned snowmobiles on just 200 acres (with 6,900 acres still wide open to motorheads). Even that, however, was too much for the snowmobilers, who sued the feds over the decision (and lost).
One might have hoped that the quiet users would behave more reasonably. But as the Teton bighorn sheep situation and a growing number of similar conflicts illustrate, that would be asking far too much.
IN OTHER NEWS:
A Canadian bitcoin miner has set up shop on the Navajo Nation near Shiprock. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a form of “financial colonialism” or “a very real source of future Navajo wealth, employment, and economic recovery.” It could be a little bit of both.
The only way the “miner” can succeed is to gobble up massive amounts of electricity. How much this particular mine uses is not clear: The articles I’ve found say it uses 7 megawatts and plans to jump up to 15 megawatts soon. But that’s not a measure of actual power consumption (which is measured in megawatt hours). Still, it translates to a huge load, especially when you consider that some 15,000 Navajo Nation residents don’t have electricity at all.
For more reading on cryptocurrency’s carbon problem, check out Ketan Joshi’s extensive—and constantly updated—post on it.
Zak Podmore has a great story in the Salt Lake Tribune about how the Colorado River is beginning to restore itself as Lake Powell’s levels drop. The photos, by Francisco Kjolseth, are lovely, as well.
And, finally, some damned good news about Monarch butterflies: