Do bighorn sheep roam the Pioneers?
Project seeks to determine if elusive mountain climbers occupy rugged range
by Jason D.B. Kauffman, Idaho Mountain Express, July 2008
Anecdotal discoveries like weathered ram skulls and the presence of steep, suitable habitat indicate Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep historically scaled the highest reaches of the Pioneer Mountains.
It’s an idea that isn’t likely to surprise anyone who has traveled in this bit of Idaho high country and imagined the graceful animals jumping confidently from rock to rock.
Now, a joint project between state and federal wildlife biologists is seeking information from hunters, hikers and other outdoorspeople who may have spotted the agile species clambering about in the range’s vertical landscapes.
The impetus for the project are the sporadic reports that have trickled in during recent decades suggesting that remote areas of the rugged mountain range east of the Wood River Valley may still harbor bighorn. As recently as 2005 and 2006, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Magic Valley Regional office received reports of the wild sheep as close as the hills east of the Hailey airport and another from the Triumph area in the East Fork of the Big Wood River drainage.
“There have been occasional sightings of bighorn sheep in the Pioneers,” said Regan Berkley, Fish and Game’s regional wildlife biologist.
One of the biologists involved in the project to determine if wild sheep inhabit the scenic range, Berkley said that while the reports suggest bighorn may occur in the Pioneers, they don’t indicate which established populations in Idaho the dispersers are originating from.
“They’re very sporadic,” she said. “Single sheep show up and then disappear.”
More recently, a policy developed by Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Fish and Game requiring a determination of where bighorn exist in the state and if they’re coming into contact with domestic sheep bands has led wildlife officials to ask if the animals occupy the rugged Pioneers. Adopted in February, the “Interim strategy for managing separation between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep in Idaho” establishes a policy requiring the species be kept separate, to avoid the risk of disease transmission, by establishing domestic- and wild sheep-free “buffer zones.”
The policy is highly controversial among conservationists and some hunting groups. Critics say it could lead to bighorn being moved or killed where the two species overlap. They say the burden of separation is placed solely on bighorn and not on domestic sheep.
The policy further states that bighorn will be managed to minimize expansion into active grazing allotments, and it prohibits reintroduction efforts in areas where separation from domestic sheep isn’t possible.
The strategy is tied to lawsuits filed by Jon Marvel of Western Watersheds Project in Hailey, that sought to evict domestic sheep from allotments on the Payette and Nez Perce national forests in western Idaho. Last summer, forest officials agreed to eliminate sheep grazing on the bighorn-occupied allotments Western Watersheds Project was contesting.
Wild sheep expert Mike Foster, a Mackay-based wildlife biologist with the Salmon-Challis National Forest, the agency responsible for overseeing the eastern half of the Pioneer Mountains, is the key person behind the Pioneer Mountains bighorn project. Last fall, he began placing signs throughout the Pioneers asking the public to report bighorn sightings.
Over the years, Foster has fielded calls from people who say they’ve spotted bighorn sheep in the Pioneers. He said the dozens of sightings—many considered credible—stretch as far back as the 1970s.
“We’re trying to get a little more clarity,” Foster said. “What we’re trying to do is be proactive.”
For his part, Foster believes the bighorn reported are likely young rams out on “exploratory trips” in search of new home ranges.
But Tom Keegan, Fish and Game’s Salmon Regional Wildlife Manager, said reports of bighorn ewes and lambs indicate a low-level population of wild sheep may actually have existed in the Pioneers since nearby populations in the East Fork of the Salmon River and Lost River Range reached their highest levels in modern times between the 1960s and 1980s.
Keegan is most familiar with the East Fork herd, one of the nearest populations of bighorn sheep to the Pioneer Mountains. The herd winters in the lower half of the East Fork drainage near Clayton. He said the most recent helicopter survey of the East Fork herd counted 68 animals.
Keegan believes the herd’s winter range in the vicinity of where Big Boulder Creek pours into the East Fork and its summer range on both sides of the north-south White Cloud Mountains divide makes it the most likely source of the Pioneer Mountains sightings. The East Fork herd is a rarity in that it was never extirpated, meaning today’s sheep have the same genetics as those that existed in the drainage before settlement.
Keegan said another possible source for the Pioneer Mountains sightings could be the population of bighorn that occurs in the Lost River Range east of Mackay. This herd is thought to have been extirpated, but has since been brought back through a program of transplanting sheep captured from healthy herds in other states and from Canada.
Of course, if the Lost River sheep were the source of the Pioneer Mountain sightings, that would have required them to make visible forays across the arid Big Lost River Valley. From there, the wandering bighorn would have had to cross the White Knob Mountains before finally setting foot in the Pioneers. No evidence exists for such wanderings, Keegan said.
“It’s hard to know where they’re coming from,” he said.
This is especially true, given that bighorn are not considered a good “pioneering species” that is willing to travel long distances to establish new home ranges, Keegan said. Like Foster, he said young rams are more likely to travel great distances to occupy new range.
The bigger conundrum is trying to explain the source of the alleged ewe and lamb sightings in the Pioneers. Keegan believes these sightings may be explained in one of two ways: either they arrived when the East Fork and Lost River Range populations reached their greatest levels or perhaps there has always been a relic population in the Pioneers.
He said the first explanation is more plausible because when sheep herds are at all-time highs they can actually begin dispersing to new ranges. After 1990, herds in the East Fork and the Lost Rivers crashed due to disease.
While he believes bighorn were likely eliminated in the Pioneers at some point, Keegan isn’t ready to close the book on the idea of a relic population. He points out that while people use the range, the Pioneers are still remote and may have hidden sheep for decades.
“It’s big country,” he said.
Keegan listed five more sightings from recent decades where ewes and lambs were reported in the Pioneers, some as recently as 2005. These sightings, which took place in the eastern half of the range in places like Starhope Lake, upper Muldoon Canyon and Big Black Dome, leads Keegan to believe at least some sheep are using the range year-round.
“These sheep are not going back in there each year,” he said.
One of the main objectives of the Pioneer Mountain project is to capture a bighorn and fit it with a radio collar. This would allow wildlife biologists to track the movements of the bighorn to determine if it’s only passing through or residing there year-round.
From local sheep ranchers’ perspective, the project is also about better communication with state and federal officials. The controversial side of the domestic-and-wild-sheep equation is that the mixing of the two species has been tied to episodic die-offs of bighorn due to pneumonia.
Over at the Lava Lake Land & Livestock in Carey, President Mike Stevens has been heavily involved in the recent Pioneer Mountains project. Known for their willingness to employ proactive measures to keep wolves and sheep separate, the large sheep producer is also interested in keeping in close communication with officials so if bighorn sheep are sighted near their extensive grazing leases in the Pioneers they’re ready.
Alerted to the presence of a bighorn sheep near one of their bands, they could give herders timely instructions by satellite phone, Stevens said.
“It really is focused on communication from our perspective,” he said.
So, how would officials react if bighorn were discovered in the Pioneers?
“We’re going to have to take each sighting on a case-by-case basis,” said Randy Smith, Fish and Game’s Magic Valley Regional Wildlife Manager. “It wouldn’t necessarily mean they’d be moved.”
Marvel doesn’t trust these assurances. He’s concerned that the state’s new policy doesn’t include any clear guidelines for what would happen if bighorn come into contact with domestic sheep.
“A case-by-case basis is kind of meaningless,” he said.
Asked what would happen if Fish and Game discovered a bighorn near domestics in the Pioneers, Smith said they “would probably opt for getting it out of there.”
Meet Ovis canadensis: the bighorn sheep
Various subspecies of bighorn sheep can be found in the Rocky Mountains from southern Canada to New Mexico, parts of Nevada and Oregon, western Texas, eastern California, Arizona and northern Mexico. The mountain goat, all white with short black horns, and the bighorn sheep, brown to grayish with white rumps and large spiraling horns, share similar habitat. In Idaho, about 1,600 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep live in the rugged central mountains, while 1,100 California bighorn sheep are found in the southern canyonlands and deserts. Compact and muscular-bodied, bighorn graze on grasses, sedges and forbs.
Report bighorn in the Pioneers
To report bighorn sheep sightings in the Pioneer Mountains, call Mike Foster at the Salmon-Challis National Forest at 588-2224. Provide the date, time and location of the sighting—including GPS coordinates—if possible.