Bighorn Sheep versus Domestic Livestock
The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are among the most majestic wildlife animals in the West.
Bighorn sheep remain among the most valued experiences for wildlife enthusiasts including wildlife watchers, photographers, and big game hunters.
This Western icon 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 sought along regional trading routes between indigenous peoples.
Once thought to number in the millions in North America, now many bighorn sheep continue to struggle to remain in viable populations. Intermitten pockets of native bighorn persist in areas of the West and efforts to reintroduce bighorn and/or supplement pre-existing populations have been stymied by the continued persistence of domestic sheep on federal public land.
Why Are Bighorn Sheep Dying ?
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.
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 competition from the overgrazing of public lands by domestic sheep and cattle. 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 public lands. Livestock usage leaves inadequate forage for the bighorns that were once allowed to roam free.
Bighorn Sheep Advocacy
WWP remains committed to insisting that wildlife managers use the best available science to guide decision-making relevent to the preservation of imperilled bighorn. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA), a group of 23 wildlife agencies from the Western U.S. and Canada conclude that there is a preponderance of evidence indicating intermingling domestic sheep with wild sheep leads to disease transmission and death. With this in mind, WWP maintains public oversight of wildlife management, advancing the restoration of bighorn sheep habitat on public lands throughout the West.
Bighorn Sheep Legal Efforts
Western Watersheds Project (WWP) has been succesful at protecting bighorn sheep in the Hells Canyon and Salmon River areas using litiation to pressure federal agencies into acknowledging the threat that domestic sheep allotments on the Forest posed to bighorn sheep.