The last days of fall are some of my favorite days of the year. I watch the forecast and wait for big blasts of Pacific moisture to march up the Snake River Plain, hit the Teton Range of Wyoming, and dump feet of snow. I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to log lots of backcountry days on my skis. As much as I look forward to hitting my beloved backcountry runs, I know this is also a really hard time for wintering wildlife like bighorn sheep, deer, elk, and moose. Popular canyon spots on the west side of the Tetons (including Fox, Darby, and Teton Canyon) are important areas for wintering wildlife and will be closing to winter recreation on Thanksgiving – except for travel on designated routes. And I’m okay with that, because there are lots of other places I can ski.
Winter travel restrictions protect critical winter habitat for wildlife. Cold temperatures, extreme terrain, and deep snow combined with scarce food supplies and the dire need to conserve energy make the winter months a stressful time for our local big game herds. Wildlife that encounter backcountry skiers, Nordic skiers, snowmobilers, fat bikers, dog walkers, and other winter recreationists may flee an area or avoid it altogether. However, flight and avoidance require wildlife to use calories that are needed to tackle other threats, like disease and predators.
Years ago, the Caribou Targhee National Forest and Grand Teton National Park put winter travel restrictions and protections in place to reduce stressful encounters for wildlife… and they worked! Today, most of our local big game herds are healthy and robust - with the exception of the Teton Bighorn Sheep herd. One report indicates that the herd’s population has fallen to almost half of its original size, with some biologists estimating that there are only 60 to 80 sheep left. According to Wyoming Fish and Game Biologist, Aly Courtemanch, these bighorn sheep will avoid otherwise suitable habitat when human travelers are present. Programs like Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s Don’t Poach the Powder and GYC’s Don’t Poach the Powder West are working hard to protect vulnerable herds, like our Teton Range Bighorn Sheep herd, by letting people know where and when winter travel restrictions are in effect.
Travel restrictions only work if we follow them. Here’s how you can help: if you like to ski, snowmobile, fat bike, dog walk, or recreate in the backcountry like I do, please help our local wildlife by observing these restrictions on critical winter range. Educate yourself about winter travel restrictions in the areas where you recreate. You can learn more about winter range closures on the Caribou Targhee National Forest and winter habitat protections in Grand Teton National Park by visiting the Forest Service or Park Service offices, their websites, Don’t Poach the Powder’s website (https://jhalliance.org/campaigns/dont-poach-the-powder/), or come see us during Yostmark’s Avalanche Awareness Night at Teton Valley High School on Thursday, December 6, starting at 7:00 PM!
— Allison Michalski, Idaho Conservation Associate