Wild Bighorns in Peril in the Colorado Rocky Mountain West
By: Joe Lewandowski--The Journal
I’ve been afforded the rare opportunity and honor to kneel beside Colorado’s state animal and its most iconic: the Rocky Mountain Bighorn. When I worked for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, I attended capture projects where skilled biologists examined Bighorns, weighed and measured them, and attached tracking collars to monitor their movements.
I placed my hands on their rough, thick coats and felt their solid frames. While the biologists did their work, I looked in awe at these animals. At the shoulder, most measured about 4 feet in height, their legs and bodies all thick muscle, tendon and bone. Their hooves calloused but pliable, providing the platforms needed for leaping among cliffs and climbing steep slopes.
I thought of how they live in the wild, constantly enduring the punishing mountain terrain. For tens of thousands of years, Bighorns have survived the always-exposed high-altitude terrain, harsh rain, wind, deep snow and the unrelenting cold of winter. They nibble grass and shrubs, lick lichen from rocks, sip from tiny streams and somehow obtain all their nutritional needs from these meager sources. Then to reproduce: The rams fight violently for dominance; the ewes give birth on mountainsides and nurture lambs through difficult conditions.
Based on the writings of pioneers, Bighorns were the most abundant ungulate in the Rockies, likely numbering in the hundreds of thousands in Colorado. Today, CPW estimates a total statewide population of only about 7,000, and the number is likely declining. And to put the number into further perspective: CPW estimates the statewide elk population at 230,000 and the mule deer population at 600,000...So what’s wrong here?
Habitat loss for Bighorns is certainly a factor. But the biggest cause of the decline is respiratory disease caused by transmission of bacteria from domestic sheep to Bighorns. Thousands of domestics graze in the alpine terrain favored by Bighorns.
While sheep producers argue otherwise, the fact of disease-spread has been proven scientifically, the evidence is incontrovertible.
The domestics graze on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Leaders of those outfits, both locally and nationally, know the problem full well, but they resist allowing grazing allotments to be closed or retired. The members of the CPW Commission, the body that sets policy for the state agency and is supposed to protect wildlife, is doing nothing to defend Bighorns.
The nonaction of the federal agencies and the wildlife commission, of course, is heavily influenced by politics. Unfortunately, the few “woolgrowers” in Colorado hold inordinate political power because their agricultural status is somehow held sacrosanct by local, state and federal politicians. The politicians, apparently, do not see the value of this rare wildlife species. And to boot, the woolgrowers are heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers through sweetheart grazing-fee deals. Sheep producers pay just $1.35 a month per “animal unit,” which is comprised of five sheep.
Obtaining – and closing – a U.S. Forest Service grazing allotment northeast of Durango cost the National Wildlife Foundation $82,500 a few years ago. The amount paid to the lease-holder is confidential.
Sadly, a private advocacy organization had to pay for the work that should be done by government agencies.
Bighorns get in trouble when an adult, usually a young ram, wanders into a flock of domestics and picks up the pathogens. The movement is, of course, natural – it’s what wild animals do. When the wanderers renew contact with wild herds, the bacteria – for which Bighorns have no immunity – are spread.
The effect is catastrophic. All-age die-offs have occurred. Pregnant ewes that survive a disease event eventually pass the pathogens to their offspring and the infected lambs seldom survive more than a few months. Both scenarios result in significant population declines.
The pneumonia, too, provides an agonizing death spiral for the Bighorns. Infected animals are observed coughing and wheezing, trying desperately to breathe. Essentially, they drown as their lungs fill with fluid.
Woolgrowers often say their “heritage” is at risk if they aren’t allowed to continue public lands grazing. They want to pass this agricultural relic to their kids. But it is the heritage of the natural world, a heritage that has been intact for tens of thousands of years that is at risk of being lost. I want future generations to know that there will always be Wild Bighorns on the landscape.
These circumstances are not new. For decades, public-land owners – that’s you and me – have complained about special treatment given to grazing interests. But the carnage to Bighorns continues.
This is the time of year that woolgrowers turn their sheep loose on public lands for the summer. High-country hikers will know when they get a whiff of a 1,000-head herd as it tramples grasses and consumes wildflowers from tens of thousands of acres. And the sheep’s unrelenting trampling and to-the-ground grazing habits cause erosion on trails and tundra that, in turn, are a detriment to our water quality.
If you’re hiking and see a Wild Bighorn in the midst of a domestic herd, please contact CPW. That animal, if it is found – and that’s unlikely – will be killed in the futile hope that its destruction will prevent the spread of disease.
You can also participate in a citizen science effort coordinated by the Mountain Studies Institute (mountainstudies.org/bighorndetails) by reporting sightings through a phone APP.
And if you are moved by the plight of these magnificent animals, call politicians, forest service and BLM officials, and write to CPW’s commissioners. You never know, one of them might listen and attempt to do the right thing.