Wes Livingston, a wildlife capture expert, places a collar on a bighorn sheep in the Tetons as part of a research project monitoring the herd’s health. (Photo by Mark Gocke, Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

This may be a surprising story. It begins with a working group trying to save the last native bighorn sheep of Idaho’s and Wyoming’s Teton Range. Last fall it reached agreement after years of effort. 

Opinion

The coalition recommended closing just over 20,000 acres of high-country public land during the winter. The proposal was a compromise, balancing the survival needs of the bighorn with the “stoke” desires of backcountry skiers. 

The sheep would get about half of the high-quality winter Teton range; skiers would lose access only to about 5% of what they had identified as prime skiing terrain. 

It seemed as if the skiers came out on top in the deal, and a majority of the backcountry skiing community accepted the compromise without complaint. 

That is, until a handful of vocal skiers lashed back, launching a campaign to convince federal land managers to preserve all access, bighorns be damned. 

The unwillingness to give up even a sliver of terrain to help a nearly extinct herd of wild animals reeks of the access-greed that puts the “wreck” in wreckreation. It’s also a prime example of what you might call the public land paradox: The growing belief that because all Americans are part-owners of the public lands, we all are entitled to do as we please on those lands, regardless of impacts. 

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 their 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 edge of dying out. That’s why, in the 1990s, state and federal wildlife agencies, biologists, and advocates formed a working group to figure out how to save the herd.

 ‘This sense of entitlement is widespread.’

Jonathan thompson

In the decades since, a growing number of recreational users have penetrated farther and farther into the backcountry — and into the bighorn’s winter range. “Quiet,” non-motorized forms of recreation were once considered benign, but a growing body of research suggests that even hiking and skiing can have a deleterious effect on wildlife. In 2014, a University of Wyoming researcher found that bighorn sheep avoided backcountry recreation areas, resulting in a major loss of their habitat.

Findings like that might warrant closure of all of the Teton bighorn’s remaining winter range. In the spirit of collaboration, the working group instead suggested the skier-friendly compromise.

But even that, a Driggs, Idaho, skier said in a public meeting, was a “tough one to swallow.” A social media commenter added: “Smells like old people and communism to me.” 

This sense of entitlement is widespread. In my hometown of Durango, the Bureau of Land Management shuts down a few areas for the winter to give wildlife a seasonal respite from humanity. And each year a few handfuls of hikers, runners and mountain bikers violate the closures, even though hundreds of miles of nearby trails remain open. 

The mere suggestion of a trail closure to protect peregrine falcon nesting areas draws gearhead jeers, and the International Mountain Biking Association pledges to “actively oppose new wilderness and other designations that would negatively impact revered mountain biking opportunities.” 

In 1995, the National Park Service banned rock climbing — voluntarily for individuals and mandatory for commercial guides — on Devils Tower, held sacred by Indigenous peoples, during the month of June to keep it free of humans during solstice-related ceremonies. 

The outfitters not only balked, they also hired the Mountain States Legal Foundation — the litigating branch of the Sagebrush Rebellion and Wise Use movement — to sue the federal government. The Park Service backed down on the outright ban and asked people to refrain from climbing in June. Yet each year hundreds of people climb it. 

In many ways, the access frenzy is a modern-day echo of 19th century colonialism, when white settlers seized Indigenous lands and ran roughshod over the public domain because, well, it was public. What they didn’t understand then, and many modern-day recreation-colonists don’t understand now, is that access to these lands is a privilege, not a right. 

Yes, we do all own a little share of the public lands. But ownership comes with a responsibility of stewardship, not outright entitlement. Bighorn sheep have a right to live in the West, too.

This piece was originally published by Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues, and reprinted here with permission.

Jonathan Thompson

Jonathan Thompson covers Western issues and is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.

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  1. Please do not take these comments as my position or opinion on this complex issue. I really do not like the title of the article. There’s influence everywhere on everything in this world.
    Based on the article and the comments it appears;
    1.Buying a plane ticket to JAC gives 500k people (in 2021alone) entitlement to the implied zoning of a commercial airport in a National Park (see Lee Campbell comments) regardless of your arrival/departures impacts.
    2. I remember well the recreational use study at the Taggart Lake trailhead that lead to this point. The study subjects were overly “targeted” in that the trailhead would be overflowing with all types of activity and only the people who set the “right” ski equipment in the “right” direction on the snow were asked to participate. I’m not challenging the real results and the real impacts are skewed by this fact. However, from my mid-level college statistics course and knowing all kinds of activities are impacting all kinds of things…………..the statistical “pool” doesn’t reflect what I see happening in the southern Tetons.

  2. I am all for protecting the habitat of threatened and/or endangered species. However, I do wonder if this species, under certain conditions, might adapt to human activities. I have driven through Zion National Park many times and it is rare not to see desert bighorns, often grazing right on the shoulder of the road. Desert bighorns have been reintroduced to many locations in the southwest with success. Most of Zion NP is definitely not a wilderness area, as anyone who has visited there knows. It would be interesting to know how rocky mountain bighorns would adapt to human activities under similar conditions.

    As far as demonizing four-wheel drive vehicles, I would think that people of all physical abilities have a right to visit our public lands as us able-bodied folks.

  3. Guess who has outsized clout on public lands?

    Domestic sheep and FS policies led to many of the problems we now have with bighorns who used to live closer to the valley floor in the winter. And these bighorn populations were hunted in the past.

    As the bighorn study clearly stated, the bighorn population is fairly stable. And has been for a long time. The authors think that they will face more threats as backcountry recreation increases. It’s hard to really know what the threat is if massive closures don’t happen (the end result). That is a guess.

    The bighorn study group has failed to prove that expanded – voluntary – closures won’t help the bighorns (voluntary closures in the park have been in place and most people avoid them). They have failed to prove that a more gradual or targeted approach (real-time elastic closures, smaller closure areas, etc) will have a negative impact. They have failed to prove that sheep won’t return to lower elevations if that habitat is improved and protected.

    Given the fact that you can drive right up to bighorn sheep in Jackson on the Elk Refuge, one does wonder if sheep can’t adapt to humans to some degree in the backcountry more than the study would suggest. And given the stable population of those backcountry bighorns, and their ability to adapt to a higher elevation habitat, it seems like they have the natural ability to survive in remarkable ways that the study discounts.

    As for skiers not caring about the bighorns, I doubt that is true. Most likely, they question the study and mandatory closures and policy that has no flexibility.

    1. How many skiers and other back country users do you think have studied and critically read the study?

      1. Tom says:

        “How many skiers and other back country users do you think have studied and critically read the study?”

        I am betting the percentage is much higher than you would expect and certainly much higher than those who don’t ski, or don’t ski far into the backcountry. Those who don’t travel into proposed closure areas have little incentive to read anything. Those who are most impacted and speaking out have probably read the study, but who knows. Certainly some have done much more than read the working group’s study (Also, Angus has covered the issue for long long time – it’s not new).

        Either way. many would not understand the study’s methodology, and be unable to find flaws in its conclusions – correct or not. There is also a long history of poorly developed research being passed off as convincing. People may have an opinion simply based on that. You can google “science studies proved false” or just read this: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/

        The new *voluntary* closure areas seen this year are a little scaled back compared to *non-voluntary* closures suggested in the working group’s final briefing. It is hard to tell what their mixed messaging is intended to say but they may have realized that some of the closures were simply never going to pass muster with the park service or the public.

        In the very last public meeting with all the land managers (online), it was suggested that changes might be considered based upon input received that evening. One such change they made was opening up more of the backside of the Grand Teton. This is important for safety (retreating, especially) and historically a very popular line of attack.

        Hopefully, skiers will respect the voluntary closures and be kept abreast of any changes that may need to be taken based upon sheep movement.

  4. Depressing if valuable contribution. Humans driving extinction of wildlife on private lands should give priority to threatened species on public lands–their last refuge but these skiers & other recreationists cited in this article don’t give a damn. It’s a statement about their complete lack of understanding of stewardship.

    1. Bruce: Many of our private landowners in Wyoming ( mostly ranchers ) are widely criticized for restricting access to their private land – they do so to prevent damage to the land and especially the wildlife. In addition, they provide free grazing and habitat to dozens of species at no expense to the public. Many of them are dead set against subdividing rural tracts of land, to such an extent, that many have entered into perpetual conservation easements which guarantee the land will not be subdivided and built on; and therefore, will remain in agricultural use. This time of the year ( winter ) hundreds of Wyoming ranchers are feeding tens of thousands of elk on their own private land at no expense to the public,. these elk are OWNED BY THE PUBLIC but fed by private landowners without compensation. Our Wyoming ranchers are considered the best stewards of the land possible – when you compare to the public owned lands in Wyoming ( excepting the wilderness areas ) you will find that the real serious problems occur on the publicly owned lands – not the privately owned lands.
      With respect to grazing in the wilderness areas it results because the grazing leases in the wilderness area pre-date the designation of the land being wilderness; that, is the leases are grand fathered in. They have established a pre-existing usage. This grand fathered usage can be bought out by reimbursing the lease holder ( rancher ) for relinquishing the lease and some have been. I have mixed emotions on this matter but realize it is legally established matter – not my opinion. Over time, many of these grazing leases will be retired – but it will take time.

      1. .P.S. I just Googled wilderness act and found that the WILDERNESS ACT OF 1964 established many of our existing wilderness areas; therefore, grazing leases pre-dating 1964 are grand fathered.

  5. I can’t believe this, motorized users wanting more Backcountry to play in and now this? Sheep have enough problems surviving with disease issues. Why is it that everyone thinks they are entitled to what THEY want and to hell with everything else???

  6. Right on. It is appalling how selfish people have become, and the agencies whose job it is to protect public and land wildlife need to have the gumption and support to push back.

    1. As you are well aware the USFS, BLM etc are “controlled” by rich and powerful people who “own” US Senators and Representatives.

  7. Understanding the impact of growing demand for back-country recreation is such an important issue to preserving wild lands and wild life. Thanks for shinning light of it.

  8. Please leave our wildlife alone on their land. The BLM/USFS/DOI are zeroing out wild horses and burros for rancher and other outside interests, they are killing predators and wildlife, and taking their lands away. It is wrong on so many levels.

    1. 1. Wild horses and burros are protected by federal law. Activists forced these non-native species (just like cows and sheep) on the landscape. They are not being “zeroed out.”
      2. They have exceeded their population objectives for years.

  9. As an avid backcountry snowboarder, I fully agree with closing these areas.

    I do disagree with saying that recreationists have “outsized clout” when the grazing industry is allowed to graze cattle in wilderness areas, in bighorn sheep habitat and is allowed to kill grizzly bears to support it.

  10. Jonathon: Totally agree. We are at the point of having to protect the public lands from the public – wilderness seems to be the most effective method. The new mobility of mountain bikes, ATVS, 4 wheelers, rock climbing trucks, helicopter lift to remote areas, etc. are jeopardizing portions of the public lands which were rarely visited in the past. The new “primo” land in the US is large blocks of private land with no federal land within the boundaries – the people that can afford these large blocks of private land don’t want the public anywhere close to them. Of course the wildlife suffers from the new mobility – look at the recent squabble over snow mobile access in Yellowstone National Park – a compromise was finally reached but most members of the public accessing Yellowstone by snow mobile didn’t consider the effect on wildlife and the commercial interests only cared about the money. Your right, this a growing problem justified by joint ownership of the land by the public. One encouraging trend I’ve noticed is a movement by the BLM and USFS to fundamentally zone different areas of the public lands according to best use of the land. Zoning isn’t actually referred to in the resource management plans – however it is implied. On private land, zoning can be used to limit certain activities in zoned areas. As more and more people access the federal lands in the west, the only hope is for the federal agencies to restrict access – that’s hard for me to say since I’ve always been a multiple use of the public lands person.

    1. Interesting point: The Shoshone National Forest is in the process of revising their travel management plan – the revision can result in identifying areas of the forest – not already protected by wilderness designation – in which access is limited or prohibited. The revision could result in “roadless” designations and/or abandonment of minor roads/trails such as old logging roads. If critical wildlife habitat is identified it conceivably could be protected during the revision. We’ll just have to wait and see what the draft plan proposes although thousands of comments were received. Some of your concerns may be addressed in this particular forest but its on a forest by forest basis.