Jonathan Thompson runs a newsletter called The Land Desk that covers some of the topics of the Interior West that are also of interest to TSW readers. This story is about the issue of non-motorized recreation impacts on wildlife, and collaborative efforts to deal with that issue.
(what’s interesting about these maps to me are the dots that weren’t there in 1960 but are there in 2012; fewer blobs but expanded numbers of dots in other places, does anyone understand this?)
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
and the story goes on to report on different peoples’ views.