On Sept. 26, Mountain Pursuit, a hunters’ advocacy group in Jackson, Wyo., filed a lawsuit against the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee national forests for allowing mountain bike use in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area and ATV use in the Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area.
In August 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 Wyoming Public Lands Initiative committee, which formed in 2016 to address the question of management of the Wilderness Study Areas in Teton County.
“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 Wyoming Public Lands Initiative 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 Wyoming Public Lands Initiative were invaluable.
“The conversation is continuing between (Mountain Bike the Tetons), 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." 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 Bridger-Teton’s response, Shaul filed a lawsuit in the Teton County District Court last week, naming O’Connor, Caribou-Targhee supervisor Mel Bolling, and Teton Basin District Ranger Jay Pence as defendants. Bridger-Teton administers all of the Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Area and 80,000 acres of the Palisades Wilderness Study Area, which includes trails that are popular with mountain bikers such as Black Canyon, Lithium and Mosquito Creek.
The complaint demands, among other things, that the Forest Service conduct comprehensive planning on mechanized and motorized use in the Wilderness Study Areas, 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 Wilderness Study Area, 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.