Sierra bighorn sheep spend much of their lives nimbly navigating around cliffs and along rocky ledges far above timberline, displaying an uncanny ability to scramble around what appears to be imminent danger.
And for almost 20 years, the bighorns’ balancing act has been shadowed by the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation. The non-profit group originally worked to pull the bighorns back from the brink of extinction, and is currently working to expand its reach so it can keep up with a string of successes that has seen a steady increase in the number of Sierra bighorn, and successful efforts to transplant and reintroduce the iconic animal to two more of its historic ranges in the Sierra.
In 2012, the foundation and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program, celebrated a significant milestone when the number of bighorn sheep reached 500, in five separate herds from Lee Vining to Lone Pine. That milestone allowed DFW to begin taking animals from existing herds and transplanting them to new locations, essentially creating a “new” herd. The animals are carefully screened and selected to create a genetically diverse group. When bighorns were released in the Olancha Peak area in 2013, it represented the first attempt to establish a new population in 25 years.
In March of 2014, another group of bighorns was transplanted into a remote part of Sequoia National Park, called the Big Arroyo, which brought the bighorns back into their historic range in the Kern River Drainage.
Those recent successes are even more remarkable considering there were several times in the past 40 years when the number of bighorns dropped to about 100 animals.
John Wehausen, Ph.D., a foundation board member, has been instrumental in the bighorn research and recovery effort since about 1979, first as a DFW employee and now as a volunteer. He recalled some of the more dramatic moments in the struggle to create a sustainable population of Sierra bighorn sheep.
The decline in the number and range of the bighorn started in the mid-1880s, when white settlers came to the region. By the 1970s, only two small herds remained, numbering about 250 animals in the Independence area. Animals from those herds were transplanted and established “new” herds in three ranges, Wheeler Ridge, north of Bishop, Mt. Langley near Lone Pine, and the Mono Basin. By the mid-1980s, “things were going in the right direction,” Wehausen said, with the number of bighorn reaching about 250 to 300 in the various herds.
But three developments in the 1990s conspired to almost wipe out all that progress, and push the bighorn back to the brink of extinction. The same three factors also led to the creation of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation
In 1990, California voters approved the Wildlife Protection Act, which made the mountain lion a specially protected animal in California. And starting in 1987, the Eastern Sierra endured drought conditions for the next six years. Finally, funding in the DFW for the bighorn program started to decline.
The “big winter of 1995” hit and delivered plenty of snow, including some wet spring storms. The combination of extended drought, mountain lion predation and the heavy snow “was devastating” to the bighorns, Wehausen said. Of the 100 animals in the Mono Basin herd, only 34 survived, and a dozen bighorn in the Wheeler Ridge herd were killed by an avalanche. “That was definitely a wakeup call,” he said. “We needed to really find out what was going on” with each herd.
The need for more monitoring and data collection, along with the need for additional funding, above and beyond what government agencies could provide for the bighorn program, led to the creation of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation in 1995. The non-profit foundation’s first project was a comprehensive survey of the existing herds. The results of that work were sobering. The Sierra-wide survey revealed there were only about 115 bighorn left.
The threat to the sheep from mountain lions remained, and when the DFW asked for a legal opinion about its ability to “control” mountain lions threatening the bighorns, the department was told it could not kill or trap the protected mountain lions, even if they were harming the bighorn, which were classified as a “threatened” species under the California Endangered Species Act.
That promoted the foundation to join with other groups to file for federal endangered species status for the Sierra bighorn. In 1999 that request was granted just three months after the initial filing. “That’s about as fast as you can get” a ruling, Wehausen noted.
The federal, endangered species listing superseded state laws regarding mountain lion management, and federal regulations about domestic sheep grazing and other public land policies, he said.
“But the listing didn’t bring money or a program,” Wehausen said. The publicity from the listing, and the dramatic population decline, prompted the state legislature to act, and fund a “recovery program” within DFW for the bighorn. The initial funding was set for five years, but in a pleasant development, the Legislature made the bighorn funding a permanent part of the DFW budget.
With steady funding to support the DFW Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program, the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation continued to work quietly behind the scenes to support the DFW program.
The foundation continues to be one of many partners in the recovery effort, and continues to provide additional financial support. For instance, it paid some of the costs of the helicopters used in the recent transplant effort. The foundation also is stepping up its outreach and educational programs. The current exhibit of bighorn-related art, videos and information at the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery north of Independence is part of that effort, as is the “migrating mural” series of bighorn murals in Lone Pine, Independence and Bishop, said board member Ginnie Chadwick, Ph.D. Chadwick and other board members also make presentations about the bighorn to local schools. (For more information on the foundation’s programs, email Chadwick at firstname.lastname@example.org , or check the website at http://sierrabighorn.org .)
Ironically, the successes of recent years coupled with reduced state funding for the recovery program has led to an increased need for financial and other support for the program. For example, the higher bighorn populations and the addition of the two “new” herds have increased the costs for monitoring, data collection and ongoing research. Board members noted that is a good problem to have, and said the foundation is once again taking on the challenge by working to enlist the public’s support, once again, for the Sierra bighorn sheep recovery program.