The steep high country in Grand Teton National Park is home to about 80 bighorn sheep, residing in two separate herds. At one time their numbers were much higher, and they migrated from the high country to low elevation winter ranges. That is no longer possible due to human influences such as development, fire suppression, and other disturbances. Instead, these bighorn sheep stay in the high country, eking out a living on windswept ridges above 8,500 feet.
This terrain also beckons winter visitors of the two-legged kind: backcountry skiers.
Josh Metten, avid backcountry skier and certified Yellowstone Naturalist, is particularly impressed by this extremely hardy herd of bighorn sheep.
“The story of the Teton herd is an impressive one of persistence over thousands of years,” Metten wrote in an essay published by the backcountry gear company Osprey. “Yet the herd is now slipping towards extinction.”
Metten’s passion for both bighorn sheep and backcountry skiing came together in the new short film Denizens of the Steep, produced by Metten and directed by Zach Montes. The film examines the potential impacts from backcountry skiing to the Teton bighorn sheep herd.
“Most of us who backcountry ski think of the sport as having minimal impact as we travel under our own power, leaving only our tracks behind,” Metten said. “It is hard to realize our presence, as we enjoy the sport we love, is having a negative impact on the Teton bighorn sheep herd.”
Denizens of the Steep follows renowned Jackson ski mountaineer Kim Havell as she explores and redefines what it means to be a backcountry skier. This sport has exploded in popularity over the last decade, but is especially popular in this year of Covid as skiers head to the backcountry to avoid crowds at the nearby downhill ski resorts.
“It is an uncomfortable truth to realize that something so quiet and peaceful as backcountry skiing could be contributing to the local extinction of an iconic native species,” Metten said. “Yet, if skiers and riders don’t step in to help, we could lose this iconic symbol of wildness.”
Metten explains winter is the toughest time for the Teton Sheep herd, who rely on conserving finite fat reserves in order to survive. Recent research shows increasing levels of disturbance by backcountry skiers is tapping into these finite reserves and shrinking already limited winter habitat.
This interaction between backcountry skiers and the Teton bighorns was studied in a Master’s Thesis research project in 2014 by Alyson Courtemanch at the University of Wyoming.
In her thesis summary, Courtemanch states she found “bighorn sheep avoided areas of backcountry recreation, even if those areas were otherwise relatively high quality habitat.”
Courtemanch concluded “the 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.”
Once the potential impacts were recognized, a collaboration of wildlife agencies, wildlife advocates, winter recreationists, and other stakeholders convened in search of solutions.
With this question in mind, Montes and Metten set out to tell the story of backcountry skiing and the Teton bighorn sheep herd in Denizens of the Steep.
Watching the film, which is available online (www.osprey.com/stories), will make any skier drool. It illustrates the lure of the sport: enduring the elements, reveling in the scenery and challenging one’s physical ability while skiing through acres of light, fluffy powder.
The film also shows bighorn sheep rams butting heads, strolling along steep hillsides as the snow flies, and emphasizing the precarious nature of their winter range. With the Tetons as a backdrop, the scenery is stunning.
In the film, pro skier and mountaineer Max Hammer states that backcountry skiers need to be aware they could be interrupting a herd and maybe opt to go to a different location.
“It’s important to remember the bighorn sheep don’t have that option,” Metten said. “Only the skier can choose a different location. We believed that those in the outdoor recreation community are, at their core, conservationists who step up to steward the wild places where we play.”
Denizens of the Steep – Finding Balance in the Backcountry
Where to view this short film: www.osprey.com/stories
At the end of the film, the following recommendations are given for backcoutry skiers enjoying their sport in Grand Teton National Park:
• Adhere to winter wildlife closures.
• Avoid disturbing winter wildlife. If you encounter bighorn sheep or tracks, consider turning around and selecting an alternate route.
• Please report any sightings of bighorn sheep in the Teton Range by calling (307) 739-3558.
• Learn more about the Teton Sheep herd: www.tetonsheep.org