KEEP­ING THE WILDER­NESS WILD

HOW OUR SIM­PLE PRES­ENCE IM­PACTS AND EVEN DISRUPTS CRAG FAUNA

Climbing - - OUT ON A LEDGE - BY KATIE LAM­BERT

KATIE LAM­BERT is a pro­fes­sional climber based out of a van in Cal­i­for­nia’s Sierra Ne­vada with her hus­band, the photographer Ben Ditto. Lam­bert has climbed for more than 20 years on ev­ery­thing from boul­ders to big walls. T he deep thump of bass echoes off the gran­ite walls of Pine Creek Canyon, one of the Eastern Sierra’s best spring and sum­mer crags. As the route he’s try­ing steep­ens, a climber yells with in­creas­ing vol­ume. Up­canyon, rolling rocks draw the at­ten­tion of an un­leashed climber dog. Bighorn sheep, star­tled by the clamor, are now re­treat­ing to the high coun­try. The dog bounds up­hill in pur­suit of the sheep. Dur­ing the spring calv­ing sea­son, bighorn sheep de­scend from the High Sierra to for­age in the lower el­e­va­tions of the Wheeler Crest at Pine Creek Canyon. The canyon’s to­pog­ra­phy pro­vides good es­cape ter­rain and safe lamb­ing lo­ca­tions. How­ever, due to decades of un­reg­u­lated hunt­ing, dis­ease out­breaks, avalanches, weather, and other stres­sors, th­ese wild ru­mi­nants have suf­fered massive pop­u­la­tion loss, and were listed as fed­er­ally endangered in 2000.

That year, the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) headed a re­cov­ery plan for the an­i­mals, and in 2014 ini­ti­ated a study to mon­i­tor recre­ational-use trends in ar­eas like Pine Creek, where mul­ti­ple trail­heads and climb­ing ar­eas con­verge with the sheep’s habi­tat. Amy Sturgill, a CDFW wildlife bi­ol­o­gist who mon­i­tors the sheep and uses GPS col­lars to de­ter­mine lamb­ing lo­ca­tions, says, “This data is es­pe­cially im­por­tant for pe­ri­ods when we would ex­pect over­lap be­tween bighorn use and recre­ational use, for ex­am­ple, be­tween April and June when ewes are lamb­ing.” De­spite an in­crease in recre­ational ac­tiv­ity, the Wheeler herd unit is do­ing well, with an es­ti­mated 100 an­i­mals, in­clud­ing 20 new lambs born in spring 2018. The hope is that through ob­ser­va­tion and a re­cov­ery plan, the pop­u­la­tion will in­crease and the sheep will be delisted.

In their ob­ser­va­tions, Sturgill and her peers have noted that, in ad­di­tion to un­ruly dogs, loud mu­sic and yelling at the crags are also stres­sors for the sheep, of­ten driv­ing them back to higher el­e­va­tions. With the pri­or­ity be­ing the herd’s well­be­ing, the CDFW has talked of is­su­ing a blan­ket clo­sure for Pine Creek from April through June. This dras­tic mea­sure would be a huge blow to the Cal­i­for­nia climb­ing com­mu­nity. How­ever, we should be able to avoid it, if we rec­og­nize the sig­nif­i­cance of our im­pacts and take the ap­pro­pri­ate mea­sures to mod­ify our be­hav­ior.

Climb­ing ar­eas have their own ecosys­tems, with na­tive plants and an­i­mals. Th­ese desert land­scapes, wooded forests, and alpine walls pro­vide homes to many plants and an­i­mals. As much as we clim­bers re­fer to the crags as “home,” the re­al­ity is that we are merely vis­i­tors. We leave at the end of the day, re­turn­ing to our beds and to food we’ve stored in re­frig­er­a­tors or ice chests. When we climb, we are of­ten head­ing into front coun­try or wilder­ness. As Howard Zah­niser of the Wilder­ness So­ci­ety wrote in the Wilder­ness Act of 1964, “A wilder­ness, in con­trast with those ar­eas where man and his own works dom­i­nate the land­scape, is hereby rec­og­nized as an area where the earth and its com­mu­nity of life are un­tram­meled by man, where man him­self is a vis­i­tor who does not re­main.”

As clim­bers in th­ese frag­ile places, we need to con­sider our im­pacts. Long af­ter we leave the cliffs, the wildlife re­mains, for­ag­ing for food and build­ing their homes—they ex­pend en­ergy just liv­ing. Sur­viv­ing in the wilder­ness is a del­i­cate bal­ance, and any stress causes them to ex­ert more en­ergy: Be­ing chased by dogs and has­sled by hu­mans vi­o­lates the very con­cept of wilder­ness. And land man­agers are tak­ing note.

While the CDFW so far has just made ob­ser­va­tions through­out the Sierra, other or­ga­ni­za­tions like the For­est Ser­vice have out­right closed climb­ing ar­eas, for in­stance the An­ge­les Na­tional For­est’s Wil­liamson Rock, South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s premier sum­mer sport des­ti­na­tion. In 2005, law­suits brought by con­serva-

tion groups and the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity led to the clo­sure in the name of pro­tect­ing the endangered moun­tain yel­low-legged frog.

Clo­sures for an­i­mals aren’t un­com­mon. Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park im­poses sea­sonal elk-rut clo­sures dur­ing the fall mat­ing sea­son, as well as a bighorn sheep clo­sure year-round in a roughly four-squaremile area in­hab­ited by the an­i­mals. Yosemite and Zion na­tional parks, the Mo­honk Pre­serve, and other parks com­monly close ar­eas sea­son­ally for rap­tors. Th­ese ar­eas im­ple­ment sea­sonal clo­sures for all recre­ational ac­tiv­ity within a cer­tain range of nest­ing sites, and the once fed­er­ally endangered pere­grine fal­con has made a mirac­u­lous come­back thanks to th­ese con­ser­va­tion ef­forts.

For the most part, clim­bers re­spect the clo­sures, obey­ing the law and choos­ing to climb else­where. How­ever, sadly, there are ex­cep­tions. In 2012, one of the high­est known nest­ing pairs of pere­grine fal­cons suc­cess­fully bore a fledg­ling on Medli­cott Dome in Tuolumne Mead­ows. The NPS is­sued a manda­tory clo­sure for the for­ma­tion, plac­ing notices on the trail, on­line, and on the com­mu­nity bul­letin board. Th­ese birds are quite sen­si­tive, and hu­man dis­tur­bance can cause them to aban­don the nest, fail to breed, stop feed­ing ba­bies, or even force the fledglings (not yet able to fly) to jump from the nest due to fear.

Yet two clim­bers ig­nored the clo­sure and climbed on Medli­cott any­way. A few days later, the fledg­ing was found dead at the base of the dome. NPS ques­tioned the clim­bers and is­sued a ci­ta­tion—and right­fully so: Their self­ish ac­tions had caused un­due stress to the birds, lead­ing to the an­i­mal’s death. Ad­di­tion­ally, the clim­bers’ ac­tions caused the park ser­vice to fur­ther scru­ti­nize climber ac­tiv­ity—a mi­cro­scope we can all agree it’s not ideal to be un­der.

Clim­bers have a com­plex re­la­tion­ship with the en­vi­ron­ment, one we of­ten fail to ex­am­ine in all of its nu­ances. For as much as we love na­ture, we do cre­ate im­pact. We travel around burn­ing co­pi­ous amounts of fos­sil fuels, cre­at­ing habi­tat-dis­rupt­ing global warm­ing; con­sume non­re­new­able re­sources like ny­lon, metal, and leather climb­ing gear and cloth­ing; and eat end­less amounts of bars, pro­tein pow­der, and canned fish, cre­at­ing pack­ag­ing waste. At the crags, unat­tended or dis­carded food is of­ten eaten by squir­rels, bears, mar­mots, birds, and the like, caus­ing obe­sity and mal­nu­tri­tion—not to men­tion the sheer dis­rup­tion of our pres­ence. As climb­ing con­tin­ues to grow, so too will our im­pact on the wild. But know­ing how to man­age our­selves in the places we love is just one way we can off­set th­ese im­pacts and re­spect the en­vi­ron­ment.

Sim­ple so­lu­tions in­clude keep­ing our dogs on leash, pick­ing up pet fe­ces as well as our own, stay­ing on trails, pick­ing up our and oth­ers’ trash, mind­ing sea­sonal clo­sures, not play­ing loud mu­sic, and lim­it­ing loud noises that can echo in the canyons and dis­turb wildlife. Ed­u­cat­ing our­selves about the flora and fauna of the places we climb will also give us more in­sight into how to be­have and what to look for.

Climb­ing is so much more than just the ac­tual act of climb­ing. Spend­ing time in th­ese amaz­ing en­vi­ron­ments brings rich­ness to our lives. Things like the hoof clat­ter of sheep, the chirp­ing of frogs, and the swoop­ing of rap­tors all com­bine to give a sense of place and con­nect us to the larger planet. Man­ag­ing our­selves and avoid­ing bad be­hav­ior will help avoid blan­ket clo­sures so we can con­tinue to en­joy the out­doors. For the plants, an­i­mals, and even our own sake, we need to work to­gether to keep the wilder­ness wild.

SIERRA NE­VADA BIGHORN SHEEP GRAZ­ING ON THE EAST SIDE OF THE RANGE.

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