Sheeple or people? It’s always interesting to me when backcountry user restrictions finally trickle down to us human powered denizens of the outback (first they took our ATVs, then they took our skis, then they took our socks!).
In the Jackson, Wyoming area a study of bighorn sheep winter range shows the noble beasts intersect with backcountry skiing routes in some zones. Using what appear to be the intriguing (to put it nicely) cause-effect assumptions of conservation biology, as well as a dose of preemptive caution, the idea of more sheep habitat restrictions on backcountry skiing range is being floated as a result of the study. (Note the Teton skier restrictions began some time ago, this is just a continuation of the process).
The study biologist said (according to Jackson Hole News) “I want to reiterate that the population is small… it [presence of backcountry skiers] does put them at risk, but it’s currently stable.” So, the population is currently stable but at risk?
We’re all for reasonable efforts at wildlife conservation and it may well be that the Teton bighorn need a winter environment with no humans within their threat zone (some areas are already restricted). Yet clearly the extrapolation and guesswork in this sort of thing is worrisome. For example, one has to wonder if helicopter mugging and collaring about 23% of the small sheep herd might be at least as bad as the presence of backcountry skiers? More, the number one cause of sheep mortality? Avalanches, not people.
Time for reality check. According to my reading the whole Wyoming Tetons bighorn situation is actually caused not by skiers, not by hunters, not by bird watchers — but rather by valley development blocking off or eliminating winter range, essentially stranding the bighorn in a harsh winter alpine environment that’s not their choice.
Thus, the real conclusion of this study and associated management policy is perhaps this: build your mansion in Wyoming and do a 100% scientifically verified whack job on the poor bighorn who are forced to live in avalanche terrain, but if you’re a backcountry skier please tiptoe around like you’re in the room with a sleeping baby. Thing is, that tiptoeing skier might be making her living maintaining the hot tub at the mansion. Pull a string — everything is connected!
Concluding thought: Why not use backcountry skiers to haze the sheep into returning down the mountain to their ancestral winterground — after it’s cleared of a few pesky roads and estates?
Down south from Jackson, here in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado we occasionally receive cognitive dissonance from Aspen. Actually, more than occasionally. While the industrial tourism area of Aspen helps many around here make a living and we do like the old mining town, the little village does tend to take a rather inflated view of itself that’s a source of frequent laughs.
According to an article in a local rag, Aspen’s mayor Steve Skadron is floating the idea of creating a segment of the town economy devoted to ski mountaineering equipment development. Strangely enough, Skadron is proposing that a part of town devoted to fur shops and jewelry boutiques be given over to skimo businesses that would be panting like teenage lovers at the opportunity to displace those businesses with their design and development operations.
Really, no kidding. While I’m all for Aspen going back to the days when the town was filled with innovators and engineers instead of hedge fund billionaires (otherwise known as the mining era, around a century ago), let me relate a top 10 list as to why this is probably not going to happen regarding backcountry skiing equipment development. I share this as a favor to Skadron and his cohorts so their valuable energy and time can be put towards the basics of running a resort town instead of indulging in anthropocentric fantasies.
10. Floor space rental prices in Aspen? Stratospheric.
9. No useful summer skiing for testing is closer than Washington state.
8. We now get multiple dust storms every spring, so the legendary Colorado spring ski mountaineering season has been virtually canceled. For some strange reason the Aspen Skiing Company is doing nothing to help mitigate this, even though most of the dust comes from only several hundred miles away. In any case, a viable skimo equipment development operation would need the extended spring season for field testing that didn’t require a cross country flight.
7. Aspen has been quite successful with making private automobile access to their town a royal joke. Large traffic jams pump massive amounts of CO2 nearly any winter morning and most afternoons, delaying your day. Once you’re there, no reasonable parking. Mass transit exists, but is useless for backcountry skiers who need to range about the valley getting the goods. For that you need a good old-fashioned automobile.
6. Cost of living around here, even when you’re not in Aspen, is akin to Alaska.
5. In many cases, add an extra day to speedy shipping, especially when the airport closes due to winter storms. More, this is not an industrial hub; while you might be able to find a scrap of fur to do some climbing skin experiments, you can’t run to the other side of town for a chunk of 7075 T6 aluminum if you’re prototyping a binding.
4. Shortage of affordable housing.
3. Regarding avalanche safety, Colorado has the worst backcountry snow in the western U.S. The closer you get to Aspen from the west, the worse it tends to get. The better skiing is more than an hour’s drive to the west, near other towns.
Don’t get me wrong, with a town population of about 6,000 souls and an annual budget of about $100,000,000 you’d think Aspen could take that $17,000 yearly subsidy that each city resident gets and reduce by say $2,000, thus creating a skimo business development pool of a cool 12 million? I’ll bet someone would bite, even if they had to ski on dirt all spring.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.