When the love of skiing endangers wildlife

A world-renowned athlete stopped skiing in sensitive areas. Can she convince others to do the same?

By Christine Peterson, High Country News, March 16, 2020

bighorn sheep
A bighorn sheep in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Photo by Josh Metten

On a perfect day, Rendezvous Peak, a nearly 11,000-foot wind-scoured limestone ridge in the Teton Range, offers spectacular backcountry skiing. Steep lines cut off the top as skiers slice through cliff bands called the Martini Shoots, drop into a sweeping bowl and flow into a canyon of ramps and gullies.

In places like this, Kim Havell has built her life. Once considered the nation’s pre-eminent female ski mountaineer, Havell has skied on seven continents and made first ascents on four. She moved to Jackson, Wyoming, in 2012, partly to ski mountains like Rendezvous Peak.

But the top of the ridge is also home to one of the West’s most unique bighorn sheep herds. The Teton herd has eked out a living here for thousands of years, nibbling dried wildflower tops and conserving calories while waiting for spring. Now, the ancient herd, down to about 100 sheep, is on the cusp of extinction.

According to biologists, today’s elite backcountry skiers are one of the top threats now facing the herd.

And, according to biologists, today’s elite backcountry skiers — by venturing deeper into the backcountry in growing numbers during the pivotal winter months — are one of the top threats now facing the herd.

When Havell first realized her sport’s impact, she resolved to change the way she skied, avoiding the fragile herd even if that meant staying away from some of her favorite places. “We’re trying to get into more and more remote zones with our gear and knowledge,” Havell, 42, said from her home in Wilson, Wyoming. “We’re pushing wildlife out of their habitat.”

Lately, she’s seized upon a mission bigger than herself: convincing the skeptical guides and skiers whose livelihood and passions revolve around skiing in the Tetons to do the same. But there’s a problem: The skiing community has been slow to change its behavior, and time is running out to help the bighorn herd rebound.

RESEARCHERS ESTIMATE that about 1.5 million bighorns once roamed the Western U.S. and Canada. Then came market hunting, habitat loss and disease, and now, only about 85,000 range in isolated groups around the West. One of those is the Teton herd. The sheep can see for miles, and any perceived danger sends them packing, burning precious calories in the process.

Biologists like Aly Courtemanch, with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, have studied the intersection of backcountry skiing and bighorns for years. Courtemanch tracked the movement of ewes and 700 backcountry skiing trips and found that not only did sheep abandon areas disturbed by skiers, they rarely returned. “Winter recreation — where the snow enables people to go wherever they want — causes this unpredictability for an animal,” Courtemanch said. “They don’t know where you will pop up, so they avoid the area altogether.”

Technological aids like Google Earth and Fat Maps, an app that lets users follow its contributors’ backcountry routes, have enabled more skiers to push deeper and more easily into steep, rugged terrain. Some areas have been closed to winter recreation, however, and Jackson’s backcountry skier community worries that its range is already shrinking. That makes even casual talk of further restrictions controversial.

“It’s hard for the general public to wrap their heads around (the fact that) a skier walking slower than molasses up the hill will be the thing that pushes them over the edge.”

Skiers are more aware of their potential impact, but that doesn’t mean that they voluntarily avoid bighorn winter range outside of closure areas. Thomas Turiano, an author and skiing legend in northwest Wyoming, says he has seen sheep bolt while in the backcountry, including on Rendezvous Peak. But he’s reluctant to accept how big an impact that really has. “Sure, if we scare them away, they’re burning energy. But is that the cause of their decline?” Turiano said.

Similarly, other prominent backcountry skiers have questioned their collective impact. Adam Fabrikant, a ski guide who is sometimes called the “Mayor of the Tetons” because of how much time he spends in the mountains, is one of them. He says he tries to change his plans if he sees sheep, but he also feels that skiers are being unfairly blamed.

Both Fabrikant and Turiano say it’s difficult to accept that skiers have an outsized impact — more than condos, highways and using helicopters to kill invasive mountain goats — on the bighorn herd. “It’s hard for the general public to wrap their heads around (the fact that) a skier walking slower than molasses up the hill will be the thing that pushes them over the edge,” Fabrikant said.

Still, Havell, a deeply respected figure in Jackson’s skier community, hopes that she can convince more recreationists to compromise. She agrees that snow sports aren’t solely responsible for the bighorns’ problems, but she thinks humans can do more to control their impact, particularly when it comes to avoiding the sheep. To boost action within the community, she’s partnered with Turiano and others to create a checklist for guides and skiers, advising them to stay away from the top of windswept peaks, avoid known sheep locations, scan for the animals and turn around or change your route if you spot one.

Many listen to these recommendations, but others oppose the idea of more restrictions. And while awareness may be increasing, some still hesitate to report bighorn sightings for fear of additional closures. Havell, too, worries about losing access to the mountains she loves. She craves deep powder and untouched slopes, but is willing to give them up if it means saving the herd.

“Some of these animal populations will disappear in front of us,” she said, “and we had an opportunity to prevent it.” 

Christine Peterson has written about wildlife and the environment for the past decade from her home in Wyoming Read article here. This story was originally published by High Country News (hcn.org) on March 16, 2020