Feasibility of Restoring Bighorn Sheep Populations in the Southern Wind River Mountains

  • By Bighornrestorationgroup
  • 08 May, 2016

Summary Report January 1, 2016: Ronald K. Smith

ABSTRACT

Bighorn sheep formerly inhabited the Wind River Mountains in vast numbers and therefore played a vitally important ecological roll in the entire ecosystem. However, by 1900 many formerly abundant herds had declined to the point of near extinction. In the early 1960’s, at the behest of a concerned and insistent public, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department began restoring bighorn sheep populations in the southern Wind River Mountains. However, within the last decade the translocated bighorn sheep inhabiting Sinks Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River have completely died out, most likely the result of bronchopneumonia contracted from an unfortunate accidental contact with a small hobby flock of domestic sheep present near the canyon during a short four month period.  Currently only three tiny, isolated populations of bighorn sheep exist in the Little Popo Agie, North Fork of the Popo Agie, and the adjacent South Fork of the Little Wind River Watersheds. Without prompt agency intervention, the imminent extinction of these small, isolated populations is all but assured.


Bighorn Ewe and Lamb
Figure 1. Bighorn Ewe and Lamb on early spring range. (Photo by Ron Smith)
Several significant obstacles to restoring bighorn sheep into the southern Wind River Mountains exist, and while they may be challenging, solutions eliminating or substantially reducing each biological uncertainty to bighorn sheep restoration have been identified and can be implemented.  With strong support by the public, the key state and federal agencies, and a little novel, visionary, and out-of-the-box thinking, the opportunity exists for reasoned political and science based workable solutions for the entire range of issues impacting bighorn sheep recovery in the southern Wind’s.  A dedicated and vocal public, concerned with wise management of our wildlife resources, will help ensure that Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep once again climb the canyons and peaks of the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River and adjacent watersheds just as they have done for thousands of years. A recovered bighorn population will benefit the public, wildlife and outdoor recreation enthusiasts, photographers, hunters, and area tourism, helping to enhance and broaden the economic foundation of Lander and Fremont County, as well as enhancing the ecological integrity of the southern Wind River Mountains.  

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Evidence left by prehistoric Indians throughout the Wind River Mountains—including Sinks Canyon—as well as historical accounts indicate that bighorn sheep have been exceptionally abundant throughout the Wind River Mountains for many thousands of years.  Up until the recent past, bighorn sheep were especially important to the Tukudika, or Sheep Eater Indians, whose descendants today live on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Reports prior to the 1870’s indicated bighorn sheep were impressively abundant and occupied most, if not all, suitable habitat in the southern Wind River Mountains, being plentiful “all over the face of the mountains behind Lander in winter.”

However, bighorn populations declined dramatically by the late nineteenth century due primarily to market hunting, competition with enormous numbers of domestic livestock, and an extensive stew of new diseases contracted from domestic sheep for which bighorns had no immunity.  By the early 1900’s many bighorn populations had been completely exterminated. Then, for a variety of reasons, and in contrast to other native big game ungulates, many bighorn populations did not recover following strict hunting regulations and conservation measures implemented in the early years of wildlife management in the state. It has been reported that bighorn sheep populations today number a mere five percent of the numbers present in the early 1800’s.

Due to the public’s desires, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in partnership with sportsmen’s groups and other state and federal agencies began bighorn sheep recovery efforts in the southern Wind River Mountains during the 1960's.  Several transplant efforts from the Whisky Mountain population were made to augment existing herds and rewild uninhabited former wild sheep ranges, including Sinks Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River Watershed.


Figure 2. Six Thousand Year Old Bighorn Sheep Petroglyph in Sinks Canyon. (Photo by Scott Copeland)
Figure 3. Releasing bighorn sheep in Sinks Canyon, 1964. (U.S. Forest Service Photo)
Figure 4. Signage in Sinks Canyon depicting bighorn sheep ecology. (Photo by Ron Smith)
Figure 5. Wind River Mts. Bighorn Hunt. (Photo by Ron Smith)

Within just a few years, the descendants of the relocated bighorns prospered and fanned out all over the Lander front, appearing poised to reclaim their important ecological roll in the Wind River Mountains. The Middle Fork herd likely numbered well over 150 individuals, with a similar number wintering in the Little Popo Agie/Red Canyon area. A considerable number—according to locals—also crossed Highway 28 and inhabited the fringes of the Red Desert—a place bighorns were also once exceedingly abundant. Another 50, if not more, flourished in the North Fork of the Popo Agie River and other nearby watersheds.  

 The Sinks Canyon bighorn sheep herd became very popular, as the bighorns were readily observable by the general public. Local residents and tourists from all over the United States and the world came to Lander’s Sinks Canyon State Park to enjoy, not only the fascinating attraction of “The Sinks” itself, but many of them came specifically to attain a sense of the wild: experiencing first-hand, a glimpse into Nature through the lives of wild Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

The bighorns became such a prominent attraction in Sinks Canyon State Park that wildlife viewing pullouts were located in areas where they were likely to be observed and signage was placed in the canyon depicting the ecology of bighorns. One of the canyon’s oft seen bighorns, Bam Bam the Ram , became an international celebrity, being prominently exhibited on YouTube videos and featured on numerous TV shows all around the world—including National Geographic and World's Wildest Vacation Videos—as well as having his very own Facebook page. This furthered Lander’s reputation as a premiere tourist destination. The bighorns rapidly came to exemplify and symbolize much of the mystique and beauty of Sinks Canyon as well as the Wind River high country.

In addition to the bighorn’s aesthetic value, the herd became an important huntable big game population. Hunting permits for mature bighorn rams—arguably the most coveted of the big game licenses the Wyoming Game and Fish Department offers—were made available beginning in 1963. Hunters annually pursued a carefully managed number of bighorn rams from this herd unit (Temple Peak Herd Unit), further boosting Lander’s standing as an outdoor recreation Mecca. From 1963 to 1993 three hundred fifty six (356) bighorn sheep hunting permits were issued to hunters in the Temple Peak Unit.

Not surprisingly, Wyoming’s wildlife populations play a significant—even vital—roll in local and statewide economies. So too, the Sinks Canyon bighorn population, no doubt, considerably enhanced and broadened Lander’s and Fremont County’s economic base and reputation as a highly valued tourist and recreation destination. The bighorns in point of fact became a chief defining shining standard-bearer for the Lander area.  In large measure they helped connect people with nature and with Sinks Canyon, setting Lander apart from other communities. They were credited as being partly responsible for making the town such a unique and exceptional place to live and visit.

However, in the early 1990’s something timeless changed. The bighorn population experienced a devastating die-off. During the summer months of 1992 biologists observed sick and dying bighorns in Sinks Canyon.  More than 20 ewes and lambs were subsequently tested for evidence of disease and other maladies. Results showed a high level of exposure to Pasteurella antigens, a highly fatal bronchopneumonia disease in bighorn sheep.  Pneumonia quickly spread throughout the entire southern Wind River Mountain bighorn sheep herd. The same strains of Pasteurella spp. identified in bighorn sheep were found in a small hobby domestic sheep herd present near Sinks Canyon.

While the primary initiating cause of the precipitous die-off of the Sinks Canyon bighorn sheep was not definitively determined, anecdotal evidence indicated that the bighorns died of  bronchopneumonia acquired from contact with hobby domestic sheep that were present near the mouth of Sinks Canyon during a four-month period from late April 1992 to mid August 1992. The same Pasteurella strains, which are normally innocuous in domestic sheep, are fatal to bighorn sheep. In a matter of months the disease spread from nothing to major catastrophe. Wyoming Game & Fish Department census records show that the Middle Fork bighorn sheep herd declined from 131 animals counted post-hunting season 1991 to only 59 animals post-hunting season 1992. Only 12 animals remained by 1993.

 While a tiny metapopulation of bighorn sheep still exists in the southern Wind River Mountains this population is currently extremely small and fragmented in three isolated drainages of the Little Popo Agie, North Fork of the Popo Agie, and the adjacent South Fork of the Little Wind River. Other than an occasional individual showing up in Sinks Canyon, the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie herd is presently extinct and unless immediate management measures are taken by the appropriate wildlife and land management agencies, the probable extinction of the remaining, small, isolated populations is all but certain. 

CHALLENGES AND IMPEDIMENTS TO BIGHORN SHEEP RESTORATION IN THE SOUTHERN WIND RIVER MOUNTAINS

 A number of challenges have been identified confronting restoration of bighorn populations to the southern Wind River Mountains. They include:

  • Inbreeding depression and lack of genetic diversity within the remaining, small, isolated populations of bighorn sheep currently present in the southern Wind River Mountains
  • Lack of connectivity between the remaining small, isolated populations of bighorn sheep in the southern Wind River Mountains and the presence of a broad conifer belt, separating low elevation winter ranges from high alpine summer ranges deterring seasonal migrations of bighorn sheep and other game animals between winter and summer ranges. This conifer belt has greatly increased due to fire suppression during the past 150 years.
  • A domestic sheep grazing allotment permitted on Shoshone National Forest managed lands near South Pass and a few domestic sheep hobby flocks along the Lander Front pose disease transmission risks to bighorns.
  • Habitat degradation, primarily from non-native invasive plants on portions of bighorn sheep range
  • Possible Selenium deficiencies and heavy metal toxicity in bighorn sheep
  • Predation of bighorn sheep, primarily by mountain lions
  • Transplanted Herd Habitat Use Issues
  • The commitment, and expense needed for monitoring and transplanting bighorn sheep are perceived to be too costly

TOOLS, METHODS, AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR  MITIGATING OR ELIMINATING THE CHALLENGES  AND IMPEDIMENTS TO REWILDING THE SOUTHERN  WIND RIVER MOUNTAINS WITH BIGHORN SHEEP

Wyoming people are known for being passionately concerned with wildlife issues. There may be no other state where its citizens are more in tune to and appreciative of vibrant, healthy wildlife populations. Perhaps no other single issue provokes such a keenly zealous response by the Wyoming citizenry.  Many citizens obviously view preservation of Wyoming’s outstanding wildlife resources as a legacy, even a duty. Additionally, indications are that area citizens overwhelmingly support the reestablishment of thriving bighorn sheep populations in the southern Wind River Mountains.

There are most certainly several formidable issues facing rewilding the Wind River Mountains with bighorn sheep. Fortunately, the conservation ethos strongly espoused by the various state and federal wildlife and land management agencies calls for prevention, mitigation, and repair of the problems we've created. Aldo Leopold—the father of wildlife management—in his outstanding essay “The Land Ethic” said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.”   Restoring bighorn sheep to the Southern Wind’s meets all of both Leopold’s and the agency’s criteria. Restoring bighorns would greatly help preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the Wind River Mountains.

To wit, the following opportunities for addressing the previously identified challenges to bighorn sheep restoration in the southern Wind River Mountains includes:

1)   Inbreeding depression and lack of genetic diversity within the remaining, small, isolated populations of bighorn sheep in the southern Wind River Mountains

There are likely less than two-dozen bighorns remaining in the Popo Agie Watershed and single digit numbers in the Little Popo Agie Watershed—no one seems to know for sure. There is an urgent need to be proactive with our actions toward the existing small herds of bighorns in the southern Wind River Mountains. An essential pressing need exists to supplement these existing herds with additional transplants as soon as possible if they are to survive. Additionally, assuring migration corridors are opened between the remaining populations will likely be a requirement to ensure continued genetic diversity, aiding long-term survival of southern Wind River Mountain bighorn sheep. These small, isolated populations are currently hanging on by the slimmest of threads. The attitude toward population augmentation should be a precautionary: “Better safe than sorry!”

Whatever data is still lacking can be gathered along the way, but if in the meantime, the bighorns entirely disappear, many more administrative hoops will have to be jumped through to reintroduce a new herd rather than to carry out a supplementary augmentation.  If the three small isolated populations blink totally out, it may be next to impossible to initiate a new reintroduction. Agency action (or inaction) during the next few years will therefore likely determine the fate of bighorn sheep in the southern Wind River Mountains—quite possibly forever.

2)   Lack of connectivity between the remaining small, isolated populations of bighorn sheep in the southern Wind River Mountains and the presence of a broad conifer belt, which now separates low elevation winter ranges from high alpine summer ranges

Migration corridors are of key survival importance to bighorn sheep and other Rocky Mountain animals. These corridors are used to 1) gain access to important seasonal ranges, 2) for dispersal to unoccupied habitats, and 3) for connectivity with other populations, enabling genetic diversity to be enhanced. Corridors in the southern Wind’s are vitally needed.

Timbering and/or prescribed burns to open corridors between the remaining herds and between summer and winter ranges could help provide sheep with these corridors. The U.S. Forest Service has already completed the NEPA process for opening migration corridors for bighorn sheep in the southern Wind River Mountains, either through logging or prescribed burns. A small-scale timbering operation could be recruited to harvest this timber. Timbering could possibly lead to a firewood and/or wood pellet industry, thereby further benefiting area economies.   [Also see 1 above.]  

The Shoshone National Forest Management Plan contains provisions for undertaking projects relating to the habitat needs of bighorn sheep and in fact the NEPA process has already been completed. Because bighorns are ill at ease in dense timber, habitat projects should promptly be evaluated, ranked, and implemented to open conifer-choked migration corridors for bighorns. If suitably implemented, these projects should greatly enhance bighorn sheep populations and increase the percentage of animals exhibiting migratory behavior. These actions could also potentially benefit other wildlife populations, such as, for example, mule deer.

3)   The potential for disease transmission from domestic sheep commingling with bighorns, both from Forest Service grazing allotments and small hobby flocks along the Wind River front.

Domestic sheep and their diseases likely present the most formidable threat to the health and security of bighorn sheep wherever they intermingle. Humans have created the framework for this difficult challenge facing bighorn sheep. However, there are a number of available tools for eliminating or minimizing commingling of domestic and wild sheep.

The BLM and U.S. Forest Service could and should implement and enforce strict regulations maintaining separation between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep and goats. Domestic sheep allotments on both sides of the Continental Divide should be appraised and if found to be in conflict with current or future bighorn habitat, reconfigured, retired, bought out, or shifted to cattle grazing allotments whenever possible. This is most especially true in wilderness areas where bighorn sheep should always be seen as preeminent, if not essential.  Eliminating overlap between domestic and current and future bighorn ranges should be an essential, core goal of domestic livestock grazing practices on public lands. An overwhelming majority of the public would support this action.

The public and responsible agencies should work with domestic livestock grazing permittees to help find workable solutions. A suitable answer may be to offer permittees open allotments not in conflict with current or future bighorn sheep ranges. Alternatively, it may be possible for agencies to reconfigure grazing allotment boundaries that enhance separation between domestic sheep grazing allotments and bighorn sheep ranges, and in fact the Shoshone National Forest Service has already made adjustments to at least one allotment in the southern Wind River Mountains. There will certainly have to be tradeoffs and while there may not always be perfect solutions for all stakeholders involved, all stakeholders should act as conservation partners, cultivating solutions that achieve the greatest social good.

All stakeholders should act as conservation partners in managing public lands for the greater public good. A sensible balance to all stakeholders—including nature, the public, and bighorn sheep—should be reflected in management actions and decisions by the agencies. Identifying common ground, effective compromises, and practical solutions can surely be found. With cooperation and realistic give and take, bighorns should easily be able to once again thrive in the southern Wind River Mountains.

While domestic sheep and goats utilize public land bighorn sheep ranges, ensure that agency operating instructions to permittees include 1) appropriate measures to minimize the chance of domestic sheep association with wild sheep; and 2) protocols for the swift removal of stray and trespass domestic sheep and goats.  Eliminate sheep grazing allotments from public land bighorn ranges whenever there is an opportunity.

Provide outreach instruction/training and aid programs to domestic sheep producers, including those responsible for hobby flocks.  Educational programs should focus on methods and tools for preventing contact between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep. Approaches such as providing guard and herding dogs, fladry, “foxlights,” range riders, and specifically recommended fencing types and techniques, etc., should be incorporated into the training and aid programs. These actions should greatly minimize issues pertaining to bighorn/domestic sheep commingling, even where domestic sheep are kept close to or even adjacent to bighorn ranges.  All stakeholders, including those raising domestic sheep, stand to benefit from efforts at preventing commingling with wild sheep and are hopefully in tune with the continued existence of both species in the area.

4)   Habitat degradation, especially from invasive plants on bighorn sheep ranges

Range improvement projects should be implemented to improve forage conditions on current and potential bighorn sheep ranges wherever needed and most especially on cheatgrass invaded ranges. Habitat assessments should be conducted on current and potential bighorn sheep habitat. Livestock stocking rates should be assessed and adjusted where needed to take into account the needs of bighorn sheep. Similar forage preferences between elk and bighorn sheep should also be considered when determining elk management scenarios to ensure adequate forage for both species.

5)   Selenium deficiencies and heavy metal toxicity in Wind River Mountain bighorn sheep

Selenium plays an essential physiological role and is vital to healthy immune system function, growth, disease resistance, and milk production in higher animals. A 2004 published interagency study showed a significant selenium deficiency and heavy metal toxicity in Whisky Mountain bighorn sheep resulting from suspected air pollution issues affecting soil properties and subsequent uptake of usable selenium and increased uptake of other heavy metals by forage plants. Although a great deal of information on this subject was obtained in the previously mentioned study, additional research is needed on this topic. This is an issue of potentially significant importance and should be further defined. Possibly, graduate students from the University of Wyoming or other institutions, in conjunction with agency personnel, could adopt this project.

6)    Predation of bighorn sheep, primarily by mountain lions

This is another project in need of additional research. In the short term—if warranted—lion hunting quotas could be increased and publicized in the southern Wind River Mountains aiding the recovery of bighorn herds and other native ungulates.

7)     Transplanted Herd Habitat Use Issues

The extinction of the Middle Fork herd—although likely primarily caused by disease contracted from domestic sheep—may have been bolstered by the sedentary nature of the majority of animals in the herd. Approximately two thirds of the Middle Fork herd were unable or unwilling to negotiate through the dense conifer belt between winter and summer range. This majority of the translocated sheep lost their migratory behavior after being released from the Whisky Mountain Herd into Sinks Canyon.

Biologists now believe that each new generation of animals learns migration routes from older sheep. The translocated sheep released into Sinks Canyon, however, had no knowledge of how to navigate through timber stands in their new unknown territory and a majority of the animals simply did not attempt to negotiate through the thick timber stands. The same type of conifer stands which most animals readily moved through on and near Whiskey Mountain became a barrier to the translocated sheep in Sinks Canyon. The sedentary behavior of the Sinks Canyon bighorns was successively passed on to each succeeding generation of lambs increasing the non-migratory behavior of the herd. The end result was development of the disjointed population segments we see today in the small remaining southern Wind River Mountain bighorn herds. Today there is no or very little interchange among these herd segments. The bighorn sheep remaining today in the southern Wind River Mountains attempt to exist year round on low elevation winter ranges, potentially over utilizing vegetation needed to sustain the animals during the winter months.

Although the logistics are challenging, releasing future translocated bighorns into high elevation summer ranges, then letting weather move the sheep down to winter range should be at least considered for future translocation efforts. Initially, baiting the sheep down to winter ranges might also be considered to aid high elevation transplants. The reverse might also be prove successful, i.e., baiting the sheep up in elevation from winter to summer range with salt, hay, apple mash or some other “ice cream” forage, or even artificially sheparding them. All of these options should be examined for enticing the sheep to move between seasonal habitats. Releasing bighorns into the various forks of the Popo Agie River Drainage rather than only in Sinks Canyon may also aid this problem. Once the bighorns initially transverse seasonal migration pathways, this knowledge will likely be passed on to future generations. Opening wide corridors through thick timber stands would also likely also greatly facilitate bighorn movements.

Abundant and adequate winter and summer ranges for bighorn sheep exists throughout the southern Wind River Mountains. Aiding bighorn sheep to access these various winter and summer ranges will help ensure their long-term survival. With our help, restoration of herds able to utilize these abundant available seasonal ranges should be attainable.

8)   The commitment and expense needed for monitoring and transplanting bighorn sheep are perceived to be too costly

The Bighorn Restoration Group was recently established to help 1) facilitate restoration of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep to suitable habitats, 2) educate the public regarding the biology, habitat needs, and management concerns associated with Bighorn Sheep, and 3) assist domestic sheep hobby flock operators with the goal of greatly diminishing the possibility of disease transmissions between domestic and wild sheep. This group and others are dedicated to aid agencies with their actions to rewild the southern Wind River Mountains with Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.  

 

CRUCIAL RECOMMENDATIONS

Several recommendations were identified in the previous section for overcoming the impediments to a supplemental augmentation of the bighorn sheep herds in the southern Wind River Mountains. The following narrative identifies twelve indispensably important recommendations that should greatly aid the reestablishment of healthy, viable bighorn sheep herds in the southern Wind River Mountains:

1)   A weighty, even critical need exists to determine what pathogens and more precisely, what specific strains of those pathogens are present in the small, isolated, existing south Wind River bighorn sheep herds. Recent research has shown that most all Wyoming bighorn sheep herds harbor pneumonia causing pathogens, but only certain strains or combinations of these pathogens seem to be lethal to bighorn sheep. A determination of these pathogen strains in southern Wind River Mountain bighorns is vitally needed to resolve the issue of whether the existing bighorns should be removed before new sheep are translocated into the southern Wind River Mountains or whether these animals should remain to pass on their genes and knowledge to future translocated sheep. If the remaining individual animals can be saved—and they should be if at all possible—they likely have knowledge and genes necessary for survival in the southern Wind River Mountains that will greatly benefit future generations of wild sheep.

2)   If the existing herds are found to be “clean” of lethal pathogen strains, there is a vital need to promptly bolster the remaining herds in the southern Wind River Mountain metapopulation through translocations to prevent extinction. Without efforts to supplement these small isolated herds, the remaining small populations will likely “blink out” in the future.

3)   Annually monitor the population status, age, health, sex ratios, and reproductive performance of all remaining south Wind River Mountain bighorn herds. Radio-collaring sheep from each existing herd to monitor movement patterns, seasonal dispersal, habitat preferences, etc., should be considered.

4)   Previous bighorn transplants from the Whisky Mountain population into the southern Wind River Mountains have typically resulted in translocated herds with low productivity and sustainability. Some agency personnel and researchers believe this could possibly be due to a mismatch between the new habitat and the source herd’s habitat. Research has shown that bighorn sheep originating from various locations do exhibit differing habitat selection strategies in new landscapes. These findings suggest that matching source herd habitat to the habitat at transplant location sites is likely to improve bighorn sheep translocation success.

As an example, the Devil’s Canyon Bighorn Sheep Herd on the western flank of the Bighorn Mountains in northern Wyoming was introduced from three different source herds: Whisky Mountain (1973), the lower Deschutes River in Oregon (2004) and the Missouri River Breaks in Montana (2006). The Oregon and Montana bighorn sheep originated from semi-arid habitats and were thought to be a better match for the introduction habitat than the Whisky Mountain sheep. University of Wyoming studies have since shown that although the three source herd animals commingle and interbreed, that the three different source herd animals do in fact show differences in their use of the various vegetation types in Devils Canyon, as well as the distance they stay from escape terrain. These results indicate that the three source herds use habitat features differently due to unique genetic or learned aspects of foraging behavior.

Since the release of the Montana and Oregon bighorn sheep, the Devil’s Canyon herd has become very productive and unlike many other herds, currently exceeds the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s recommended population objective. The Department is considering using this genetically heterogeneous herd as a source herd for future transplants. These genetically diverse sheep may be a good match for the various habitats currently found in the southern Wind River Mountains. Incidentally, the two non-Wyoming source herds in Devils Canyon originated from cheatgrass infested areas and may therefore be able to more effectively assimilate in Sinks Canyon and surrounding habitats.

5)   Design and implement habitat projects in the Little Popo Agie, Sinks Canyon, North Fork Canyon and the Wind River Indian Reservation to improve winter range forage conditions for existing and future translocated bighorn sheep

6)   Design and implement additional habitat improvement projects in conjunction with and on BLM, U.S. Forest Service managed lands, private, and the Wind River Indian Reservation targeting timber stands to open migration corridors for seasonal use by existing and future herds. Such projects will also likely benefit mule deer, elk, and a panoply of other wildlife species.

7)    Identify and implement projects to minimize potential threats to the current and future Temple Peak Bighorn Sheep metapopulation. These projects will likely involve state and federal wildlife and land managers, Sinks Canyon State Park personnel, grazing permittees, and private landowners. At least some of these projects should include a public educational outreach component with a goal of helping to rethink, reeducate, rehabilitate, and reshape our relationships with nature in general and bighorn sheep in particular.

8)    Determine the locations of hobby flocks of domestic sheep and goats along the southern Wind River Front. With the concurrence of domestic sheep or goat owners, conduct a risk assessment and then work with and aid the owners with reducing the likelihood of domestic sheep or goats commingling with bighorns. Wild sheep managers should work with domestic sheep and goat owners to support effective separation of the species through a variety of site-specific mitigation measures, while championing the prosperity of bighorn herds. Development of reporting protocols dealing with potential or actual association between domestic sheep and goats and wild sheep should be a part of the mitigation measures. All stakeholders benefit when risk is assessed and actively managed to minimize the potential for pathogen transmission.

9)    Exclude goat packing from the southern Wind River Mountains. It has been verified that goat packing poses a substantial disease risk to bighorn sheep.

10)  Monitor and support the development and use of vaccines and other therapeutic agents decreasing bighorn sheep susceptibility to domestic sheep pathogens such as is currently conducted at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Tom Thorne/Beth Williams Wildlife Research Center.


Figure 6. Mixed group of bighorn sheep on winter range. (Photo by Ron Smith)

SUMMARY

Sinks Canyon is a fascinating, astonishing place, but there is an intuitive feeling of loss due to the absence of wild bighorn sheep. The canyon is an unfilled stage without them. This sentiment is repeatedly heard from Lander residents and tourists alike. There is a pent-up demand for bighorns to be restored.

People go to places like Sinks Canyon, in large part, seeking connections with nature and with the wild.  As we all intuitively know, the most memorable excursions into the wild involve encounters with wild creatures. We crave and revel in these encounters. The absence of bighorns has greatly diminished those opportunities, depriving us all of astonishing and indispensable glimpses into raw nature.

There is an ecological poverty due to the absence of the bighorns. Ecological poverty, as it always does, translates into human poverty. But abundant and adequate summer and winter ranges exist for bighorn sheep in the southern Wind River Mountains making it easy to once again imagine the sight of mature, heavy-horned bighorn rams doing battle among the steep walls of Sinks Canyon or a cluster of playful bighorn lambs frolicking in the high alpine meadows below the Wind River Mountain peaks—both primal spectacles that presided over these wild places for myriad millennia and which rightly belong there still.  

There is currently a splendid opportunity to correct our past mistakes, ensuring that Aldo Leopold’s sound advice to “keep all cogs and wheels” in the landscape intact remains a reality.  A public endorsement of the project has arisen and now is the time to pave the pathway for the project’s success.  It is past time to take restoring this iconic species seriously.  Developing and implementing proactive, practical, forward thinking, cost effective, innovative, science based solutions to the obstacles hindering bighorn sheep survival in the southern Wind River Mountains will make it possible for this keystone species to once again find a secure and lasting home in the majestic mountain places where their ancestors lived.  Hopefully, we will seize this opportunity.

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Wild Sheep Working Group. 2012. Recommendations for Domestic Sheep and Goat Management in Wild Sheep Habitat. Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

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Wyoming Statewide Domestic Sheep/Bighorn Sheep Interaction Working Group. September 2004. Final Report and Recommendations.



By Bighornrestorationgroup 08 May, 2016

ABSTRACT

Bighorn sheep formerly inhabited the Wind River Mountains in vast numbers and therefore played a vitally important ecological roll in the entire ecosystem. However, by 1900 many formerly abundant herds had declined to the point of near extinction. In the early 1960’s, at the behest of a concerned and insistent public, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department began restoring bighorn sheep populations in the southern Wind River Mountains. However, within the last decade the translocated bighorn sheep inhabiting Sinks Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River have completely died out, most likely the result of bronchopneumonia contracted from an unfortunate accidental contact with a small hobby flock of domestic sheep present near the canyon during a short four month period.  Currently only three tiny, isolated populations of bighorn sheep exist in the Little Popo Agie, North Fork of the Popo Agie, and the adjacent South Fork of the Little Wind River Watersheds. Without prompt agency intervention, the imminent extinction of these small, isolated populations is all but assured.


By Bighornrestorationgroup 09 Mar, 2016
BRG Scientific Advisory Committee Chair Jack States, committee member John Mionczynski, and Rom Smith were invited to participate in the capture, pathogen testing, and radio collaring of a number of   Bighorn   sheep   on the South Fork of the Little Wind River on the Wind River Indian Reservation.  The project was conducted under the guidance of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, tribal wildlife officials and the Wyoming G&F Dept.  G&F Department veterinarians provided pathogen testing expertise.

The radio collars placed on the
  bighorns   are at this moment providing GPS data.  The collars will be sending signals for up to six years.  This data along with the health data collected is a great first step in the hoped for return of   bighorns  to the southern Wind River Mountains. 
By Bighornrestorationgroup 09 Mar, 2016
The BRG Scientific Advisory Committee has partnered with the Fremont County Library here in Lander to create a library of books and documents pertaining to bighorn sheep ecology, health, and management.  

These books and papers are being housed in a special section of the library and will be available for in-house review. Ask the librarian about it today! 
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