Wild sheep remain among the most valued experiences for wildlife watchers, photographers, big game hunters, native peoples and wildlife enthusiasts of every stripe.
Bighorn sheep once played a central role in various tribal cultures providing a chief source of food, clothing as well as tradeable tools. One example is the beautiful bows crafted out of bighorn horns that were prized along indigenous peoples’ regional trading routes.
Once thought to number in the millions in North America, now many bighorn sheep populations struggle to maintain viable numbers. Intermitten pockets of native bighorn persist in areas of the West but efforts to reintroduce bighorn and/or supplement pre-existing populations have been stymied by the continued persistence of federal agencies permitting domestic sheep to graze on federal public land.
Bighorn Sheep Advocacy
Western Watersheds Project is on the forefront of bighorn sheep advocacy efforts in the West. We’ve taken your strong voice and willingness to insist that bighorns receive the attention and the protections of land managers and kept managers on their toes with an aggressive court and media campaign that has proven effective.
WWP’s efforts with media have kept a strong light on the issue. We’ve exposed livestock-industry sponsored political malfeasance, conflicts of interest at research labs, and we’ve heeded the call from members and the public at large to keep pushing on behalf of bighorns.
The proud and empowered pressure WWP applies grants everyone involved in bighorn management the room they need to make the right calls to protect bighorn sheep. We’re happy to be doing it, happy for your support, and look forward to a day when bighorn sheep once again regain their rightful and plentiful place on the western landscape.
Why Are Bighorn Sheep Dying ?
Domestic Sheep Spread Disease to Bighorns
Bighorn die-offs originally occured as settlers moved West bringing with them bands of domestic sheep. As domestic sheep intermingle with bighorn in wild sheep habitat, diseases including pneumonia are carried from immune domestics and spread to wild bighorn. Massive die-offs following domestic sheep settlement almost wiped out wild sheep across the West and disease is considered the principle reason for bighorn decline (Martin et. al., 1996). Bighorn numbers have dwindled from historic levels since, as domestic sheep continue to graze on public lands spreading disease and spurring continued bighorn die-offs.
Public Land Livestock Grazing Competition for Forage
Another obstacle to bighorns has been seen in assessing suitable habitat. During efforts at reintroducing bighorn sheep, wildlife biologists assess suitable habitat where bighorn have a reasonable likelihood of maintainting viable numbers. Much public land in the West has been deamed unsuitable for bighorn re-establishment, not because bighorns did not historically thrive in these areas, but because of mismanagement by agencies that allow domestic sheep and cattle to over-utilize grasses and forbs on public land. Wildlife managers have been forced to rule out bighorn reintroduction on significant stretches of habitat in order to accomodate the subsidized production of livestock on federal public landscapes.
Bighorn Sheep Legal Efforts
Western Watersheds Project (WWP) has been succesful at protecting bighorn sheep in the Hells Canyon and Salmon River areas using litigation to pressure federal agencies into acknowledging the threat that domestic sheep allotments on the Forest pose to bighorn sheep.