Forest managers said at a May 8 meeting in Cody that they believe they can mitigate the impacts of putting a new summertime attraction in bear country.
Some of the possible steps Shoshone officials outlined included closing a picnic area to offset the new development, crafting a June through September operating season that begins after and ends before grizzlies’ most active seasons, and barring riders from bringing food or drinks on the line.
Speaking at a Park County Commission meeting last week, Shoshone Supervisor Joe Alexander said a lot of people mistakenly believe the grizzly bear conservation strategy is designed to restrict human activity in the ecosystem.
“That’s just not the design of it,” Alexander said. “It’s designed knowing that humans are part of the ecosystem, and that helps direct us and give us ideas of how we can mitigate and do things — keep human activity in the ecosystem, but to also protect the bear.
“We believe that we can do both here,” he said.
The zip line is just one part of a master development plan for Sleeping Giant put forward by officials with its parent organization, the Yellowstone Recreations Foundation. Other plans include building a eight-bed, dormitory-style caretaker’s residence for ski hill workers and putting in a snow tubing area.
However, it’s the zip line — and its potential conflict with bears in their active summer season — that’s drawn the most interest and discussion from the public and the Forest Service. Like those used at other ski hills during summer seasons, the line would allow customers to cruise down the mountain side suspended from a series of cables.
Shoshone District Ranger Terry Root said the agency gave the proposal a hard look before letting the environmental review — which is being done at Yellowstone Recreations Foundation’s expense — move forward.
The proposal threw up some immediate red flags with potential bear conflicts, but ultimately, Root said, the Forest Service found the proposal was realistic.
“That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” he added, stressing that the Forest Service hasn’t made a decision. They’re currently seeking input from the public, with comments due Friday.
Chuck Neal of Cody, a retired ecologist who spent years studying grizzly bears for the federal government, has been an outspoken critic of the proposed zip line.
“The question is, why add another layer of potential conflict (with bears)?” he asked at last Tuesday’s meeting.
“My thought on that is we’re headed in the right direction,” answered the Shoshone’s wildlife biologist, Andy Pils, who’s conducting a review of the proposal’s impact on grizzlies. “Like Terry (Root) said, there’s always going to be potential for conflicts. There’s no avoiding that.”
The key, Pils said, is to make sure it doesn’t escalate conflict.
One way the forest may work toward that end is to offset the new development by shutting down the Blackwater Pond Picnic site, a small area behind the firefighters’ memorial that has picnic tables, a toilet and fire rings. Shutting down the site would help meet a conservation strategy rule of not increasing development in the region above what it was in 1998.
Sleeping Giant’s general manager, Jonathan Sheets, said the organization wanted something that had the least impact on the ground and chose a zip line over alpine slides, nature trails or mountain biking.
The zip line, Sheets said, seemed the best way to support the nonprofit organization in the summer while minimizing impacts to the land and animals.
The highest tower is expected to be about 40 feet tall, Sheets said. The entire system would be located between the ski area’s eastern and western chair lifts. Passengers would ride midway up the western lift, then walk a couple hundred feet east to the start of the zip line course.
From there, passengers would have no contact with the ground until they disembarked the line at the ski lodge.
Possessions, particularly food and water, would need to be stored at the lodge, Sheets said; Root noted that the Forest Service doesn’t want candy bears falling out of pockets and turning into food rewards for bears in the area.
“It will happen,” said Neal.
He added that any conflicts with bears habituated by the zip line likely would not come at the ski hill, but elsewhere on the North Fork corridor.
Lee Livingston, a Wapiti outfitter who’s running for the Park County Commission, said he’s had very few serious conflicts in the area and said it’s an area that’s already seen humans.
“I don’t think the potential exists for a major league impact,” Livingston said.
Park County commissioners threw their support behind the proposal at their earlier Tuesday meeting. Before a unanimous vote to draft a letter of support for the project, Commissioner Joe Tilden said he believed the Forest Service and others would be able to manage any conflict.
James Klessens of Forward Cody told the Billings Gazette last month that the line would cost between $400,000 and $600,000 to install. Klessens said the attraction is projected to host some 4,400 riders annually, to a profit of roughly $100,000.
Neal was skeptical the zip line will work out financially.
“When this project goes belly-up in a few years, who pays for rehab (of the area)?” he asked at last week’s meeting, questioning if it would be taxpayers.
Root said the only way taxpayers would end up with the bill is if the entire ski area failed and shut down.
Alexander, however, opined earlier in the day that the zip line would be “a great deal” for the ski hill if it is approved.