National forest mulls keeping Teton ski resort out of sheep range

Grand Targhee Resort’s proposal to stretch its ski slopes south into habitat used by a beleaguered bighorn sheep herd has generated enough concern that the ski area’s U.S. Forest Service landlord is considering nixing proposed expansions.

The Caribou-Targhee National Forest, which administers the 2,517-acre westslope area leased by the Teton Range ski resort, is midway through a planning process that culminates in an environmental impact statement assessing Grand Targhee’s development plans. 

Ahead of that document’s release, the forest has made public the bare-boned options, or “alternatives,” that its contractor is analyzing. And three of those alternatives consider eliminating or cutting back on the expansion areas that the family-owned Wydaho region ski resort is pursuing. 

Grand Targhee’s most-controversial expansion, into nearly a square-mile of Teton Canyon, has been scaled back. Originally, the resort’s ownership sought three new chairlifts, 180 acres of developed ski runs and a commercial snowcat skiing operation until infrastructure was built out. The expanded boundary has been pared from 600 acres to 260 acres, two lifts have been excised from the plans and the cat-skiing plans have been dropped. The area is highly avalanche prone, and those skier-safety-related changes were thrust upon Targhee resort by the Forest Service and contractors, Teton Basin District Ranger Jay Pence told WyoFile. 

But constraining Targhee’s expansion into Teton Canyon — and potentially not allowing development there whatsoever — is also a step toward placating Grand Teton National Park and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Both agencies encouraged the Caribou-Targhee to prioritize the protection of the Tetons’ perilously small, approximately 100-animal bighorn sheep herd.  

“The expansion of Grand Targhee Resort could further impact diminishing habitat for the small, genetically isolated population of native bighorn sheep that has endured in the Teton Range since the last ice age,” National Park Service officials wrote to their federal government counterparts in a comment letter. “Development of the ski area infrastructure in the South Bowl would result in a direct loss of occupied bighorn sheep summer habitat and further fragment the available summer bighorn sheep habitat in Teton Canyon.” 

Grand Targhee staff did not respond to WyoFile’s interview request for this story. 

Wyoming wildlife officials expressed similar concerns in their own letter, submitted in late 2020 while Targhee’s plans were in the “scoping” phase. The two letters — and 386 others — have been posted on the Caribou-Targhee’s website. Several maps showing GPS locations from ewe sheep using the proposed expansion accompanied the state’s memo. 

“The department’s main concern regarding this proposal is the expansion of the [special use permit] boundary into the South Bowl area and the associated impacts to bighorn sheep winter habitat, summer habitat, and movement path to a natural mineral lick in Teton Canyon,” Game and Fish Habitat Protection Supervisor Amanda Losch wrote to Caribou-Targhee Supervisor Mel Bolling. 

The herd is classified as a “core, native herd” in a 2004 plan that guides bighorn sheep management across Wyoming. It’s the smallest of the four core herds, and its historically declining population prompted the formation of the Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group in the early 1990s. Functionally, two distinct groups of bighorns occupy the Tetons, a southern herd that totalled 37 animals when the state surveyed last winter and a northern herd consisting of 53 sheep.  

Factors in the herd’s decline, biologists say, include historic domestic sheep grazing on the Tetons’ westslope, which causes intermingling and disease exchange that can doom wild sheep. Such grazing occurred on a bought-out allotment that overlapped with Targhee’s desired expansion area. Lost habitat and severed migration routes from roadbuilding, fences and other human development have also contributed to the decline. In modern times, the Teton herd has been relegated to wind-swept, high-elevation ridges in the winter. Research has shown they are intolerant of backcountry skiers, and generally abandon their habitat when faced with even seldom-skied slopes. 

Conservation of the Teton sheep herd has evolved into a high-profile affair, and land and wildlife managers have moved the needle toward more protection, not less.  

“We have taken a very controversial action to work to remove the threat of nonnative mountain goats [to help sheep],” Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins told WyoFile. “We need to be consistent. We don’t want to see impacts from the ski area that might harm the Teton’s bighorn sheep.” 

On other Teton Range ski slopes used by those who skin uphill into the backcountry, park officials anticipate vast new closures to ease pressure on sheep range. Initially, recommendations released by the interagency working group called for setting aside 21,233 acres of high-quality winter habitat in the park and in the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee forests, though Jenkins said that the potential closed zones have been refined after further consultation with the ski community. Soon, the park will also debut a “stewardship campaign” geared toward encouraging voluntary compliance with areas that may later be officially closed. 

These types of measures stem from the working group, which also formally weighed in on Targhee’s proposal. Sheep biologist members Steve Kilpatrick and Mike Whitfield pointed out that Game and Fish and the Caribou-Targhee already had plans to improve sheep habitat in Teton Canyon. Specifically, they’d worked to authorize a prescribed fire project that will open up the vegetative canopy, creating conditions bighorns favor. 

“Approximately a third of the proposed treatment is within the South Bowl proposed expansion area,” they wrote in a comment letter. “Implementing the proposed expansion will result in direct negative impacts to a third of the habitat enhancement project and severely compromise the wildlife habitat efficacy of the remainder of the project.” 

Kilpatrick and Whitfield recommended that the planning document for Grand Targhee consider an alternative that drops the expansion zone — a suggestion the Caribou-Targhee heeded. 

Both Game and Fish and Teton Park met the possibility of a limited-development alternative favorably, though neither agency had reviewed the changes or were prepared to critique them when asked by WyoFile. 

There are months to go before the public learns which way the Caribou-Targhee is leaning. A draft version of the environmental impact statement analyzing Targhee’s development plans was expected to be out this winter, but that timeline has been shifted to May, June or July, according to Pence, the district ranger. 

Many elements of the ski resort’s plans in its current permit area are not as contentious, though the Teton Valley, Idaho community has not embraced the idea of Grand Targhee becoming more of a destination resort.