CPW Rethinking Bighorn Sheep Strategies
Majestic and agile, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is a prominent figure on the steep and jagged walls of Colorado’s canyons. But, despite its prominence and grandeur, the bighorn was near extinction at the turn of the century. Diseases introduced through European livestock and overhunting had decimated populations throughout the West, and only a small number of the native sheep remained in Colorado in the early 1900s.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), in cooperation with the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, has spent decades rebuilding sheep populations through aggressive trapping and relocation efforts. CPW conducted the first sheep transplants in the 1940s.
Since Colorado’s restoration efforts began, CPW has completed more than 100 bighorn sheep transplants, most of which took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Gore Canyon in northwest Colorado is one of the most recent transplant locations. CPW closely monitors bighorn sheep herds and maintains healthy populations through controlled hunting and ongoing trapping and relocation. Thanks to decades of dedicated conservation efforts, Colorado’s iconic bighorn sheep are once again abundant with an estimated statewide population of 7,000 animals.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife launches Bighorn Sheep
Working Group to research management strategies
DENVER, Colo. – Colorado Parks and Wildlife recently launched the Bighorn Sheep Working Group, a working group to promote discussion between multiple stakeholders on balancing habitat for bighorn and domestic sheep in Colorado. The working group will address common challenges of mixing species on multi-use lands and seek to provide consistent planning on this topic for domestic producers and wildlife managers.
“We want both bighorn and domestic sheep to thrive in Colorado,” said Reid DeWalt, assistant director for wildlife and natural resources. “We sought out multiple opinions in this working group in order to create best practices to promote viable bighorn sheep populations and a vibrant domestic sheep industry.”
The group, which first met in November 2016, will rely on the best available science in discussions to gain a better understanding of disease transmission, population dynamics, public land use and management boundaries. The group includes field managers, recreationalists, industry and tribal representatives, local government and other elected officials. It will meet quarterly in 2017. Members of the public are welcome to attend and observe the meetings.
“It is in all of our interests to manage for effective separation between bighorn and domestic sheep,” said DeWalt. “And it will take a diverse group to come up with solutions to this complex issue.”
CPW, land management agencies and permittees are currently managing for effective separation using a variety of tools, including altering allotment boundaries, employing animal husbandry and herding methods, using radio-telemetry to determine where and when range overlap occurs and removing animals from wild herds where contact has taken place.
“We need to develop all of these tools and use science to inform our decisions,” explained DeWalt. “That is the driving purpose behind this working group.”
The bighorn sheep is Colorado’s official animal and the state is home to the largest population of the species in the world. Once nearly extinct in the state, CPW successfully reintroduced the animal starting in the 1940s. For more information about bighorn sheep in Colorado visit the CPW website.
Bighorn sheep are thriving in the area of the high mountains of the San Juan and Rio Grande Forests. It is not uncommon for folks driving Wolf Creek Pass to see these animals in their natural habitat. The steep rocky outcrops along the mountain sides are perfect for them.
Bighorns are descended from wild Siberian sheep that crossed the Bering land mass to North America about 100,000 years ago. These herds spread southward, diversifying and adapting to local habitats. Bighorn sheep — named for their immense, curling horns, which can weigh up to 30 pounds — inhabit steep, barren terrain that few other species can tolerate.
Thanks to their hardiness, bighorn sheep have long been a symbolic species. Early Native Americans carved their likenesses into rocks, and the first settlers embraced them as symbols of the rugged wilderness of the American West. At their peak, more than two million bighorns roamed the West, gracefully cavorting on rocky hillsides from California to Nebraska.
But by the late 19th century, bighorn sheep were in trouble. The domestic sheep industry had taken hold in the West, and wild sheep had no immunity against diseases introduced by European livestock. As millions of domestic sheep inundated the landscape, deadly pathogens such as scabies and pneumonia decimated the bighorn population. Unregulated hunting took a toll on the few wild herds that remained.
By 1940, the bighorn population had plummeted to fewer than 20,000, isolated in tiny enclaves scattered across the Western states.