Falcons, a via ferrata and the clash of recreation v. conservation

Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile.com via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 7/21/21

It’s not yet 9 a.m., but the sun shines hot on a July morning near the mouth of Sinks Canyon State Park in central Wyoming. With a spotting scope trained on the cliff across the canyon, Bob Oakleaf sits on a grassy knoll amid whining grasshoppers.

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Falcons, a via ferrata and the clash of recreation v. conservation


It’s not yet 9 a.m., but the sun shines hot on a July morning near the mouth of Sinks Canyon State Park in central Wyoming. With a spotting scope trained on the cliff across the canyon, Bob Oakleaf sits on a grassy knoll amid whining grasshoppers. 

“So you see that big slab that’s pasted up against the cliff?” Oakleaf instructs. “And then there’s a ledge at the base of it that extends off to the left? Well the eyrie’s back behind the bushes.

“Just a little while ago I saw [a] young poke its head out,” Oakleaf said.  

He is identifying the site of a peregrine falcon nest. The birds don’t make another appearance this morning, but Oakleaf, a retired wildlife biologist who served as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s nongame wildlife supervisor, has been watching the nesting pair and their offspring all spring, he said. 

He’s been observing the avian family, in part, because it may soon have new neighbors.

The cliff face has been envisioned for a via ferrata — a permanent cable and rung system that enables recreationists to “climb” vertical walls. Managers included the proposal in the newly updated Sinks Canyon State Park Master Plan after a group of Lander locals advanced the idea and gathered support for it as a recreational draw.

Oakleaf and others, however, believe nesting peregrines and a via ferrata are incompatible, stirring up a conflict in this small but popular state park over how to balance the twin goals of wildlife management and tourist-attracting recreation. 

It’s a story colored by unique jurisdictional arrangements, a beloved place and one species’ heartening rebound. It also underscores the broader issues complicating land management as multiple-use and outdoor visitation grow across Wyoming’s public lands. 

Many believe there is a middle ground to be achieved — the parties just need to work a little harder to get there. 

“I think we can get to the point where everybody’s happy,” said Jessi Johnson, government affairs officer for Wyoming Wildlife Federation. 

Many situations are black and white, Johnson said. This one is not. 

“We’re lucky that it’s not one or the other,” she said. “A lot of times that is the choice. But this is one where it can be both. We just have to be creative about it.”

Sinks Canyon State Park is situated on 585 acres adjacent to national forest, BLM land and private land on the east slope of the Wind River Range not far from Lander. There, the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River cuts a path through a canyon of sandstone and dolomite cliff walls. At the eponymous “Sinks,” the river is swallowed by a complex of limestone caves, disappearing for a quarter of a mile until it rises downstream. 

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission acquired portions of what is now the park in 1939 and 1953 and managed the area as a winter game refuge. Game and Fish still owns the vast majority of the land, and assigns management through memorandums of understanding. Since Sinks Canyon State Park officially opened in 1976, Wyoming State Parks has been the primary manager of the area.

As the land owner, however, Wyoming Game and Fish must approve all new facilities in the park. The land remains classified as wildlife habitat management area, a type of land acquired “in the name of the state for rearing and management of wildlife species, or to provide public hunting, fishing or trapping areas,” according to WGF. 

WHMA land is regulated for “the management and conservation of wildlife, wildlife habitat and public access” or “to manage public use and special use of such lands,” according to the agency. 

Today, 45 years after it opened, Sinks Canyon State Park is a recreation hub used heavily by Lander locals and visitors. According to Wyoming State Parks, visitation to the park reached 699,490 in 2020 — a 76% increase over 2019.

Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites & Trails authorized the preparation of a new master plan in 2019. Until then, the 1975 Sinks Canyon State Park Development Plan had guided improvements in the park. 

“A lot’s changed since 1975, and the 2020 plan attempts to build on the improvements that they’ve made already,” said Kyle Bernis, Shoshone District manager for Wyoming State Parks. “And then to try and engage in a new direction for the future based on the needs and limits of the resources.”

The master planning process spanned more than a year and entailed public input meetings, steering committee meetings, small group interviews and an online survey. But it also wrapped up during the pandemic, moving some of the discussions to virtual forums. 

When the approved plan was released in October 2020, it laid out a vision of a park with better parking and more trails, a larger visitor’s center, more educational opportunities and some augmented recreation opportunities. The most novel was the via ferrata.

The plan’s stated foundation was built around two major planning principles. The first is “Keep the Canyon Wild,” and the second is “Leverage Economic Development in the Valley.”

The inherent conflicts of those two principles have come to a head around the via ferrata. 

Lander resident Sam Lightner has been climbing in the region since the 1980s. Along with authoring a Wyoming climbing guidebook, Lightner has established many routes, including in Sinks Canyon. 

Several years ago, he said, he was chatting with climbing buddies about a well-worn topic: “What could we take advantage of for outdoor recreation that … might get more tourists to stop here?” 

If Lander could intercept some of the tourists who pass through enroute to the national parks and other destinations each summer, he said, it could reap big economic benefits. 

Someone heard about a via ferrata — Italian for “iron path” — in Colorado that was a huge boon to its nearest town, Lightner remembers. They brainstormed and identified a spot for a similar project in Sinks Canyon. Later, he said, he floated the idea to then-candidate Mark Gordon, who Lightner said lit up at the idea.

Lightner is quick to point out that a via ferrata and climbing are different activities; the purpose of a via ferrata is to draw a separate crowd from the climbers who visit Sinks. 

Lightner approached Sinks Canyon State Parks and WGF, he said, and the momentum began to grow. 

The particular cliff is suitable for several reasons, Lightner said. First, it’s an easily accessible north-facing wall, which means it will stay cool in the summer months. 

“It’s also the cleanest wall,” Lightner said. “It has ledges but it doesn’t have just completely fractured rock all over the place.”

But, he said, WGF stipulated that the project couldn’t infringe on wildlife. Lightner has witnessed how falcon nesting and climbing can coexist during his decades of scaling cliffs, he said. In his experience, climbers are respectful of wildlife closures. 

The proposal came to the state park in a more formal fashion from the Wind River Outdoor Recreation Collaborative — which Lightner worked with — Bernis said, and was submitted as part of the master plan process. 

Lightner and other advocates have raised about $33,000 to build the via ferrata, he said. They have identified a preliminary route that is still subject to change. 

In order to be finalized, the via ferrata needs cultural approval from the State Historical Preservation Office, Bernis said. It will also go through a National Environmental Policy Act evaluation process with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before a request for proposal is issued for a concessionaire to run it. 

“Again it’s a proposal,” Bernis said. “Until all the clearances are given and it’s built … it’s not built.”

WGF had a major seat at the park master planning table as the landowner, said Jason Hunter, Lander region wildlife supervisor. Agency staff assessed the via ferrata — as it did other plan components — and determined that as long as it is subject to necessary stipulations, it would be appropriate, Hunter said. This included evaluating potential peregrine impacts, he said, and opting to enforce mandatory closures during nesting season. 

“We came back with the conclusion, as long as there was no activity during the nesting period, and until the birds fledged, that there would not, or we didn’t feel there would be, a negative impact on the birds,” Hunter said. 

Along with mandatory closures, the agency can closely monitor any bird activity, Hunter said. 

Within the WHMA constellation around the state, Sinks Canyon is unique, WGFD Habitat & Access Supervisor Brian Parker said at a community coffee event in June. Extensive infrastructure and heavy use both already exist in the park. 

“That’s the lens in which we view this project,” Parker said. “We feel like we can really effectively manage the wildlife aspect of it.” 

Oakleaf, who worked for WGFD for 37 years, is not convinced of that. He believes a deeper analysis needs to take place before proceeding with a project designed to attract many users to a previously pristine habitat, he said.

Peregrine conflicts were brought up during planning public meetings, according to the master plan documents, but many in attendance supported the via ferrata. 

Then, this spring, the peregrines nested on the cliff in question for the first time in years, fueling louder critique. 

Oakleaf knows peregrine falcons more intimately than the average bird-watcher. He spent much of his career working with the once-imperiled raptors. 

When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, Oakleaf said, the peregrine was its poster child. The bird’s population had plummeted across the U.S., and it had been listed as endangered in 1970 under the ESA’s predecessor. 

When he moved to Lander in 1977 as a young wildlife biologist, Oakleaf said, there were no known peregrines in Wyoming. He became involved with the reintroduction effort led by The Peregrine Fund.

The effort eventually released close to 400 birds in the state, Oakleaf said. Reintroduction in Sinks Canyon started in the early ‘90s. 

“And it took,” he said. At least one pair has been nesting in the canyon since 1994, he said. It is one of four pairs he has observed in the greater Lander region.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the peregrine from the list of threatened and endangered Species in 1999. The bird is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Wyoming by the WGFD.

Oakleaf finds the raptors, who mate for life and are the world’s fastest aerial animal, fascinating. “I come up here all the time,” he said. “I get my peregrine fix in Sinks.”

As climbing has exploded, Oakleaf said, the pair’s options have dwindled to two cliffs. One is the cliff envisioned for the via ferrata. 

He is baffled by Game and Fish, he said, which he believes needs to undertake a more rigorous assessment. Many people probably take peregrines’ recovery for granted these days, Oakleaf said, but he believes a via ferrata will eventually drive the raptors away because they are sensitive to nearby disturbances. 

“What will eventually happen, and it won’t be overnight, they’ll eventually stop trying” to nest in the canyon, he said.

Some people believe State Parks and WGFD need to take a step back and reexamine the topic.  

One is Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who grew up in Lander climbing in Sinks Canyon. 

As a hotel owner, he has a stake in the tourism industry. But he’s also concerned about the overdevelopment of Sinks Canyon in an era when Wyoming’s state parks are being overwhelmed with visitors, he said. 

“I just argue that this isn’t like a marina in Glendo or Fontenelle or maybe even Hot Springs State Park, which is totally commercial. This is different,” Case said. “Last year tipped everybody off about what is happening with outdoor recreation in the COVID world.”

Piled on that are stories of skyrocketing real estate and thin worker opportunities in places like Jackson Hole, he said. “I’m like, ‘do we really want to be next?’ I don’t want to be next, and I’m in the tourism business.” 

Case hopes WGF says “‘it looks like there’s more opposition than we thought. Let’s figure out what’s going to work for the future,’” he said. 

Oakleaf concurs. “Outdoor recreation up into this point has had fairly minimal impact on the landscape,” he said, “but that has all changed in recent years.”

Lightner believes there are two extreme sides. “And there’s probably some truth to both of our sides,” he said. Somewhere in between … is the real, and we can make the in-between work.”

All human activity has an impact, he said. “But if you just mark the entire east slope of the wind rivers, all cliff bases are out of bounds to humans? You’re gonna have humans get resentful, including me,” he said. “So I don’t think that the ‘no, you can’t go there, period’ is the right approach.” 

Hunter of Game and Fish has been a bit surprised by the late-in-the-game objections, he said. But he said the agency is open to answer questions and hear concerns.

“We have talked to a few people that have brought up concerns and typically when we let them know what protections we’re putting in place, it tends to alleviate the concern,” he said. “I think if, as long as you know all the information out there, I feel like it’s something that most folks have been supportive of.”

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