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Courtemanch collected data on skier routes by asking some 800 backcountry users to voluntarily wear a GPS device for the day. Many of the skiers who enter sheep winter range originate at just a few popular trailheads and at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. When she mapped the skier data with the sheep data, the results suggested disturbance from skiers causes sheep to avoid a significant amount of otherwise ideal winter range.
It’s possible further winter closures on Bridger Teton National Forest could help take pressure off the sheep, though managers haven’t considered any yet. Kilpatrick pointed to Jensen Canyon as one area of possible discussion, where restricting travel to a single corridor could allow skiers to unobtrusively pass through sheep winter range.
Importantly, any future closures would not affect the vast majority of skiers, while leaving many other places to ski in the Tetons from December through March. The closed areas would remain open to late spring skiing in April and May.
"We have disease taken care of," Kilpatrick said. "The next topic is habitat. Let’s start with working with the backcountry users, and provide a little more habitat by restricting use." In addition, Kilpatrick said managers could use wild and prescribed fire to improve low elevation summer habitat on the west side of the Tetons.
Further discussion of management of the Teton sheep will wait until this fall, to give time for Courtemanch’s study to make it through the academic peer-review process. At that point the inter-agency Bighorn Sheep Working Group will meet to discuss the study and any potential policy changes on National Forest land. Any further closures would be considered in a public comment process, said Dale Dieter, district ranger with the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
While it remains to be seen what actions will be taken to preserve the sheep, it’s clear no one wants to see the herd decline or disappear.
"They are a signature species of the Tetons and I think there is a lot of interest in finding ways for them to persist," Whitfield said. "They are a population that has been in the Tetons for thousands and thousands of years, so we need to find a way to be compatible with them."
Finlay said it would be a terrible loss if bighorn sheep vanished from the Tetons. "To me they symbolize the high country," he said. "It would be like if the bald eagle disappeared."
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