On Sept. 26, Mountain Pursuit, a hunters’ advocacy group in Jackson, filed a lawsuit against the Bridger Teton and Caribou Targhee National Forest for allowing mountain bike use in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area and ATV use in the Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area.
In August of 2018, after the failure of the Teton County Wyoming Public Lands Initiative to make a recommendation to the Teton County Board of Commissioners on how to manage the local Wilderness Study Areas, Rob Shaul founded Mountain Pursuit to lobby for ethical hunting, wildlife and habitat conservation, and hunter education.
Shaul represented the general public in the WPLI committee, which formed in 2016 to address the question of management of the WSAs in Teton County. While a few different proposals, including one “middle ground” proposal spearheaded by Shaul, came before the committee, none of the plans received a majority vote and the committee ended its work without finding consensus.
“Through my two-plus years of working for compromise on the WPLI it was impressed upon me that in northwest Wyoming, Industrial Recreation is the primary threat to wildlife, and that those pushing recreation, including the mountain bike and motorized recreation advocates and businesses, were unwilling to compromise to protect wildlife,” Shaul wrote in an email to the Teton Valley News.
While the WPLI ended without consensus, Tony Ferlisi, the executive director of Mountain Bike the Tetons and the committee’s mountain biking representative, said the networking and information collecting that occurred within the WPLI were invaluable. BTNF is gearing up for its Forest Plan Revision, which is scheduled to start in 2021 or 2022, and the information gathered during WPLI will be used in that effort.
“The conversation is continuing between MBT, Teton Freedom Riders, Advocates for Multi-Use of Public Land, and a number of local conservation groups where we’re asking, ‘How can we play nice here?’ After WPLI we had a good thing going,” Ferlisi said.
Shaul disagreed. In April, his organization Mountain Pursuit sent a letter to Tricia O’Connor, the supervisor of the Bridger Teton National Forest, asserting that the Forest Service “is legally bound by the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act not to allow any summer motorized/mechanized activity in the Palisades and Shoal Creek WSAs beyond what was occurring in 1984.”
He wrote that mountain biking in the Palisades has “exploded in recent years,” and users have pushed deeper into the WSA, which is bounded by Highway 22 to the north, the Wyoming-Idaho state line to the west, Highway 89 to the south, and Fall Creek Road to the east. Shaul added that the impact of mountain bikers on big game is significant, more so than horseback riding or hiking.
In the agency’s response, O’Connor wrote that mountain bike use in a roadless area does not preclude it from being considered for a wilderness designation, and that all recreational use impacts wildlife; factors such as season of use and location are as critical as the kind of use.
Unsatisfied by the BTNF’s response, Shaul filed a lawsuit in the Teton County District Court last week, naming O’Connor, CTNF supervisor Mel Bolling, and Teton Basin District Ranger Jay Pence as defendants. BTNF administers all of the Shoal Creek WSA and 80,000 acres of the Palisades WSA, which includes trails that are popular with mountain bikers such as Black Canyon, Lithium (a downhill mountain bike specific trail), and Mosquito Creek. The CTNF manages 55,000 acres of the Palisades, including the Mail Cabin Trail, which was rerouted in 2014-16 through a collaboration between CTNF and MBT.
The complaint demands, among other things, that the Forest Service conduct comprehensive planning on mechanized and motorized use in the WSAs, suspend mountain bike use in the Palisades, and comply with the Wyoming Wilderness Act in the future.
MBT, Teton Freedom Riders, and Advocates for Multi-Use of Public Land are interested in addressing the lawsuit, whether by acting as interveners or by filing a brief. As the only paid mountain bike advocate in the Tetons, Ferlisi has been doing some research and said after scanning the complaint that he could quickly find data that disproves many of the points made.
While Ferlisi agrees that mountain bike use has increased in the Palisades, he noted that, contrary to the statements in the complaint, winter fat bike use has not increased in the interior of the WSA, nor do many mountain bikers penetrate to the core of the Palisades in the summer. The ride-documenting app Strava provides an overview of how few cyclists using the app have traveled deep in the Palisades.
The Palisades are described in the complaint as a “rugged, remote, undeveloped area that is a stronghold for big game and other wildlife, in addition to being recognized by biologists as an important wildlife migration corridor,” and Ferlisi agrees. While he thinks mountain biking will never explode in the Palisades, he wants mountain bikers to be able to retain access.
“There are still people, myself included, who want to get out there by bike to have that wilderness experience,” he said.
The complaint calls out the use of mountain bikes on the Teton Pass area trails, especially Black Canyon and Lithium, as being out of accord with the 1984 act. During its 1994 Forest Plan Revision, the BTNF highlighted the Teton Pass corridor as an area with heavy recreational use.
In 2004, the BTNF released a decision memo about the Teton Pass trails to prevent unauthorized trail construction. The memo established an unprecedented relationship between the agency and the trail-building group Teton Freedom Riders, and legitimized some user-built trails while permanently vacating others.
While the lawsuit asserts that the 2004 decision “rewarded unauthorized trail construction,” and “allowed mountain biking to become the dominant recreational use for much of the WSA,” Ferlisi views it differently, saying it halted the proliferation of illegal trails and concentrated use in one area.
MBT will bring its resources to muster in this case, including the two attorneys on its board of directors. The nonprofit International Mountain Bicycling Association, of which MBT is a member, has already pledged its support.
Ferlisi said that when the WPLI failed, some committee members expected to see litigation, but not necessarily from a local entity.
“We’re organized and we have great partners in the conservation community,” he said. “This just isn’t how we do things around here.”
Shaul said that traditional hunting groups have been “happy to sit on the sidelines, out of controversy” while environmental groups have led the fight for wildlife.
“Mountain Pursuit isn’t your father’s hunting group,” he wrote in a press release. “We represent hunters ready to roll up their sleeves, and jump into the arena, and fearlessly fight for wildlife.”
Ferlisi doesn’t think mountain biking in the Palisades is under threat.
“This is just saber-rattling,” he said of the lawsuit.