GUEST OPINION: Know Before You Go

By on December 8, 2015

Outdoor winter revelry can come at a high cost to our wild neighbors.

Winter closures protect wildlife during a time of year that proves the most difficult to their survival.

Winter closures protect wildlife during a time of year that proves the most difficult to their survival.

Jackson, WY – We knew it was wrong, but we didn’t care.

Over the past few seasons we’d logged hundreds of laps in Granite Canyon, exploring and enjoying nearly every inch of arguably the sickest slackcountry zone in North America. On each lap, after passing through the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort backcountry gates that prominently display areas closed seasonally to protect wildlife, we’d look longingly at the south face of Mt. Hunt. I know it’s impossible, but it felt like the thousands of feet of consistent pitch was calling out to us like a siren: “I’m lonely, come ski me.”

One late March day, we gave into temptation and decided to answer her call. We knew Mt. Hunt was closed until April 1, but we figured since that date was only a week away, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Besides, the weather was teeing up a potential epic day of corn, so we went for it. It felt wrong from the moment we put on our skins.

Instead of calling us to ski her, it felt like the mountain gods were cautioning us to stay away. I could feel their warning in the pit of my stomach as we began ascending the slope we’d all fantasized about skiing for years. Halfway up, it became clear to all of us the mountain gods were indeed sending us a message. The heat of the late-March sun was baking the snow. We were no longer looking at corn; we were dealing with mush and potential wet slides. So we made the safe call and bailed.

Traversing out of Granite Canyon, I felt a mix of disappointment and relief. Yeah, I was bummed we didn’t get to cruise down a few thousand feet of corn. But more than that, I felt relieved that I was done doing something I knew was wrong, and it looked like we weren’t going to get caught and face the consequences of our choice.

While I had seen the “Don’t Poach the Powder” ads, I had never taken the time to think about what they meant. It wasn’t until years later when I began working at the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance that I realized just how wrong we were that day.

Winter is the most stressful time of the year for wildlife. Deep snow, scarce food and cold temperatures make conserving energy critical for winter survival. Keep in mind, there were almost no year-round settlements in Jackson Hole until a century ago – winter is just too harsh (or at least it was until we changed the climate through our burning of fossil fuels, but that’s a story for another time).

When people — or their pets — disturb wildlife, it forces them to burn calories that are incredibly difficult to replace while foraging through several feet of snow. It’s not like they can pop into Lucky’s to replenish their larder. Some stressed animals suffer a long and lingering death, and spring, even after the snow melts, still presents a challenge in terms of survival.

Imagine you’re a bighorn sheep, scraping by through the long cold winter on the high windswept ridges of the Tetons. Consider that conserving every calorie is essential to your survival. Think about how the energy you waste scrambling away from people skiing by could be the tipping point between whether you live another year or not. Heck, even when you don’t run away, research shows the stress you feel when people travel past you in the winter could make the difference between life or death. 

Finding a solution

This is why our public lands agencies came together decades ago and decided to close targeted areas seasonally to protect wildlife. Bridger-Teton National Forest, Caribou-Targhee National Forest, Grand Teton National Park, National Elk Refuge, and Wyoming Game and Fish Department worked together to determine areas for seasonal closure through extensive research, cross-agency consultation and a robust public review process. They didn’t close down all areas important to wildlife. They selectively chose areas to close that are important winter wildlife habitat where few people go, while leaving others open (like Cache Creek).

Fifteen years ago, with winter backcountry use on the rise and people starting to poach closed areas, these agencies approached the Alliance and other local organizations about collaborating to help them get the word out about seasonal habitat closures. This request gave rise to the Don’t Poach the Powder program, a partnership between local agencies and organizations to educate recreationists about seasonal closures to protect wildlife.

The concept is simple: Since most of us in Jackson Hole respect and care about wildlife, if we know before we head into the backcountry which areas are closed to protect wildlife, we won’t go there. So the Don’t Poach the Powder program focuses on letting people know the dates and locations of seasonal habitat closures. For jerks who don’t care (like myself a decade ago), we gently remind folks that poaching wildlife closure areas is a crime, carrying a penalty of up to $5,000 or six months in jail.

More of us mean more impact on them

Look, I know it’s hard to resist hitting untouched lines on Prospectors and Static Peak or that pristine pow just sitting there on Josie’s ridge (not so much this year, yet). Here’s the thing, we have thousands of acres of terrain where we can play, while there are only a few small areas closed to protect wildlife. As stewards of this incredible place, we have a responsibility to respect wildlife when we recreate.

As there are exponentially more of us recreating in the backcountry than even a few years ago, wildlife have even fewer places where they can make it through the winter without being disturbed. That’s why it’s more important than ever we don’t poach the powder. To know before you go, please visit JHAlliance.org/dontpoach/ to download high-resolution maps of which backcountry areas are closed seasonally to protect wildlife. To take the next step and become a “Don’t Poach the Powder Ambassador,” stop by our office to grab a big pack of stickers you can share with your friends.

The Don’t Poach the Powder program is a partnership of the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests, Grand Teton National Park, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, the National Elk Refuge, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and sponsored by Eco-Tour Adventures.

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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