A newly revised analysis of the project says about two dozen campsites need to be put off limits for the month of June, more than a third of a mile of road needs to be permanently closed to vehicles and a small picnic area demolished in order to offset the zip line’s impacts on grizzly bears.
Shoshone managers added in the campground and road closures after the Wyoming office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the initial proposal — to just close the picnic area — didn’t meet the rules of a regional strategy to protect grizzly bears.
That forced Shoshone managers to go back to the drawing board.
The zip line would allow paying customers to glide down the Sleeping Giant ski slope suspended from cables strung between eight towers. The aerial tour would run between the mountain’s two existing chair lifts.
Yellowstone Recreations Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs Sleeping Giant, came up with the project as a way to get revenue in summer months; the organization has run losses since re-opening and revitalizing the ski area in 2009.
Terry Root, the Shoshone’s ranger for the ski area’s district, said the Cody community has sacrificed a lot to get Sleeping Giant running again. He said the Forest Service kept that in mind as it re-examined the zip line to address the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s concerns.
“We were looking at this really big picture in trying to say, OK, what do we think we can offer [in the forest] that belongs to the people of this community, the people of the United States; that yes, they’re going to feel it, but that they may be willing to give up to make Sleeping Giant operate,” Root explained.
The 2007 “Final Conservation Strategy for the Grizzly Bear in the Yellowstone Area” generally prohibits Shoshone managers from allowing any net increases in “developed sites” inside prime grizzly bear habitat. That means a new project must be offset by decreasing development somewhere else.
Although the zip line would fall in an area that’s already developed, Shoshone managers note it would considerably increase human activity in the summer — a time when the hill sees substantial grizzly bear activity. The assessment says the operations would change the way bears use the area.
When Shoshone officials initially reviewed the proposal, they said the zipline’s impacts could be offset by shutting down the relatively infrequently used Blackwater Picnic Area several miles away.
An outhouse, a paved turnaround, four picnic tables and three benches would be removed, while a parking area, walking path and dock that provides fishing access to the man-made and stocked Blackwater Pond would remain.
New proposal more far-reaching
The new proposal, however, goes further with mitigations.
Specifically, the Forest Service says it would need to:
• Delay the opening of Three Mile Campground’s 21 sites by about a month, pushing the opening from Memorial Day to July 1. Three Mile has averaged about a quarter-full in May in recent years. Root said that, based on historical use, campers will be able to find a spot at a different site during the closures. But he noted that the opportunity for use to grow in the future — something the forest expected — will be lost. The campground is open to hard-sided campers only.
• Delay the opening of four sites in the “very popular” Newton Creek Campground by a month-and-a-half: from roughly May 15 until July 1. The sites currently are restricted to hard-sided structures during that time frame; that’s when grizzlies fish for spawning cutthroat trout, and the sites have been closed before.
“It was a human health and safety issue,” Root said. “That one, in all reality, would be something we would be considering right now, with or without Sleeping Giant.”
• Close the last four-tenths-of-a-mile of the 1.4-mile Blackwater Road to motorized vehicles. The road, open from July 1 to Nov. 30, provides general access to the forest. The assessment says the road is regularly used, particularly during hunting season. If the proposal goes forward, the road would stop at a new parking area and bridge built last year. The road beyond tends to be boggy, Root said.
Yellowstone Recreations Foundation Chairman Jay Nielson of Cody said he hopes the Shoshone’s review process will result in a solution for Sleeping Giant that works for everyone.
“I hate to see anything limit people’s usage of the forest out there, so I hope they’re not overreaching in terms of limiting the public’s access,” said Nielson of the newly proposed closures. “But (I) understand that there needs to be some mitigation there and just hope that it’s well thought-out and thorough.”
Root said the disagreement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that keyed the new mitigation measures came shortly before the Sleeping Giant plan was to be finalized — and it came as a surprise.
“We had been in consultation with them [Fish and Wildlife] ... from the beginning, and they seemed totally satisfied with what we were offering up, but when it came to the final decision, they decided they wanted more mitigation,” said Root.
Ann Belleman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist in Cody, explained that she only became fully aware of the proposal’s conflicts with the grizzly bear conservation strategy after reviewing the Shoshone’s final biological assessment. Specifically at issue was a rule that says offsets to new developments generally should be in the same grizzly bear “subunit.” The Blackwater Picnic Area actually lies in a different subunit than the Sleeping Giant Ski Area.
“The [Shoshone] felt they’d provided a reasonable biological rationale as to why their proposal was OK and in line with the strategy; we disagreed,” Belleman said in comments provided by a regional Fish and Wildlife spokesman. The agency has primary responsibility for managing grizzly bears, since they remain on the Endangered Species List.
Belleman said she spoke with grizzly bear biologists from her agency, the Forest Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department as a part of the review process.
“The Forest placed itself in a difficult position in trying to make this project adhere to the strategy. This project was also the first of its kind (at least in Wyoming) that appeared to deviate from the Conservation Strategy requirements, and there was disagreement between even the grizzly bear experts on what appropriate mitigations should or could be,” Belleman said.
Public input sought
As with the earlier assessment, many other restrictions would be placed on Sleeping Giant’s zip line.
The facility would be limited to a season of June 15 to Sept. 15 and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ski area employees would be required to do a sweep of the area before opening and after closing each day. Food would not be allowed on the ride.
Sleeping Giant also would be called upon to help pay for an existing Shoshone employee whose job is, in part, to educate the public on proper food storage in bear country and make sure people are complying with those rules.
As a separate part of the proposal, Sleeping Giant would also build a new area to the west for sledding inner tubes in the winter. It would have snowmaking equipment, potentially a warming hut and several 400- to 600-foot sledding runs. However, the zip line would bring in the most money.
The environmental assessment says that if Shoshone officials don’t approve the request, it may spell the end of the ski area.
“Without the additional income of a snow-tubing development and summer zip line/tour, the ski area may no longer be financially sustainable,” says the assessment. “The community could lose the only locally based downhill ski area and the three year-round positions and 33 winter positions it provides.”
For his part, Nielson wouldn’t categorize the zip line as a make-or-break proposition for the ski area.
“I don’t know if I would put things that strongly, but a zip line out there would definitely help us out in terms of the overall sustainability,” he said.
“We’re eager and anxious to hear just what everybody has to say about it,” Nielson said.