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Southern Sierra gets first new sheep herd in 100 years

April 6, 2013

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recently created a new herd of Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep near Olancha Peak in an effort to help the endangered native species re-establish itself in areas that have not seen a herd since the early 1900s. Photo by Andrew Hughan/courtesy CDFW

With the population of the endangered Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep at 500 and rising, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is attempting to establish a new herd near Olancha Peak.

The DFW worked March 25-27 to relocate 14 bighorn sheep from healthy herds to the Olancha Peak area, which was home to a herd that died out in the early 1900s.

The creation of the Olancha Peak herd represents the first reintroduction of Sierra bighorn to historical habitat since 1986.

Historically, bighorn sheep were abundant throughout the Sierra Nevada; however, according to the DFW, by the 1970s, only two herds remained. “Disease spread by domestic sheep and unregulated commercial hunting are believed to have caused their demise,” DFW Public Information Officer Andrew Hughan said via press release.

Last month, the DFW relocated 10 female and four male bighorn sheep from the Sawmill Canyon and Mt. Langley herds, two of the largest existing herds in the Sierra Nevada. Six additional females were moved to two small northern herds and Convict Creek and Mount Gibbs, for augmentation.

Dr. Tom Stephenson, program leader for DFW’s recovery effort, said that no new herds were created from 1986 to the present, because there simply were not enough of the animals to support a new herd.

“To do a reintroduction, we need a healthy population in the existing herds and the population declined to about 100 animals in the 1990s,” Stephenson said.

He said the new herd created in Lee Vining Canyon in 1986 almost immediately split into two herds, and both are thriving.

Stephenson explained that the DFW uses advanced scientific methods to relocate the sheep. From the beginning planning stages, DFW personnel begin monitoring the herds that will be used to create a new population, selecting for removal animals that are not related, are likely to reproduce and are free of disease.

Once the animals that were relocated were selected, the DFW used helicopters and net guns to capture, sedate and transport them to a processing center that was set up to evaluate each individual animal. The evaluation before re-release gives DFW biologists a look at the overall health of the herd the sheep are coming from, as well as an idea of the habitat the new herd will seek when re-released.

Stephenson said each bighorn was assessed and fitted with a radio collar and GPS collar that will allow biologists to track its movement and health before being set free in the Olancha Peak area.

“We will follow the GPS tracker daily for two years, and also do ground surveys to learn about the habitat they’re using,” Stephenson said.

Following the re-creation of the Olancha Peak herd, there are now 10 herds of Sierra bighorn between Owens Lake and Mono Lake.

Stephenson said three additional herds are needed to meet recovery goals, but planning for the creation of those herds won’t begin until biologists are sure the newest herd is healthy and thriving.

“Many endangered species remain on the brink of extinction with poor prospects for recovery after they receive federal protection,” Stephenson said. “Through our conservation efforts, we have a unique opportunity to reach recovery goals for an alpine specialist that is native only to California. We are really excited. It’s neat to have the opportunity to start new herds again.”

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