Grand Teton National Park to Develop a New Management Plan to Protect Bighorn Sheep

by Amy Myers

Grand Teton National Park is in the process of developing an environmental assessment that will protect the area’s bighorn sheep population during the winter.

For thousands of years, bighorn sheep have been an important part of the Teton Mountain Range’s wildlife. However, in recent years, the population has become so small and isolated that it teeters on the brink of extinction. As a result, the park has tried to ascertain the best ways to manage the herd. Officials have coordinated with fellow organizations like the Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group. This group has helped determine the greatest threats to the population, such as habitat loss, disease, non-native mountain goats and disturbance from backcountry winter recreation.

Now, the park and these groups are re-evaluating the current management plan. In their new plan, they will explore how we can minimize the effect of the threats that the winter months pose on Grand Teton’s bighorn sheep.

Grand Teton National Park Hopes to Find Compromise Between Bighorn Sheep Protection and Opportunities for Winter Recreation

The biggest concern at the moment is how outdoor activities during the winter can damage the area’s bighorn sheep. According to Grand Teton park officials, the new plan will prioritize the health of the herd. Meanwhile, the park will still provide plenty of backcountry winter recreation opportunities.

“Alternatives will consider visitor management and education strategies for protection of bighorn sheep as recommended by the Teton Range Bighorn Sheep Working Group, including increased public outreach and education, signage, enhanced monitoring of both bighorn sheep and recreational use, new or expanded winter closures in specific areas, and designated travel routes, among other actions,” the park informed in an official release.

The national park is looking for public feedback on its current direction for the new management plan. You can submit your thoughts on the protection plan here.

National Park May Also Have More Sheep Than Originally Thought

Additionally, the new plan will take into account that the national park may have a larger bighorn sheep population. Thanks to a recent study, there is evidence that there are almost 80 more bighorn sheep than originally thought. The data comes as a result of a new tactic that scientists have adopted.

Previously, biologists used helicopters to count the area’s bighorn sheep population. However, this time, they decided to use a noninvasive approach of examining scat.

“By analyzing the DNA in scat samples collected in the high country of the Tetons in 2020 and processing that data with statistical models, we estimate about 178 bighorn sheep lived in the range that summer,” said National Park Service wildlife biologist Carson Butler.

Ultimately, this could mean good news for the otherwise fragile pack. However, Butler cautioned that the biologists are only halfway through their four-year study.

“In the long term, good stewardship and continued monitoring is key to sharing the Tetons with these magnificent animals,” added Steve Kilpatrick, former director of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation. “At the same time, we can all appreciate a little cause for optimism.”