The population of a western wildlife icon just got a boost along the Upper Colorado River.
Bighorn sheep, the official Colorado state animal, once roamed the rugged slopes of Gore Canyon and hilly rangeland near Radium, but herds have seen a sharp decline statewide since the early 1900s. Wildlife officials say the animals faced competition with domestic animals brought by human settlers. Herds also took a hit from being over-hunted.
As early as 1945, wildlife workers have tried to boost bighorn populations by trapping wild sheep and relocating them to establish new herds or supplement existing ones. In 2009, Colorado Parks and Wildlife upped its efforts to grow bighorn populations, developing a 10-year management plan.
“Ecologically speaking, there was a niche missing,” said Lyle Sidener with the CPW office in Hot Sulphur Springs.
In February 2009, CPW released 14 bighorns in Gore Canyon. Bighorns breed once a year, with ewes generally having only a single lamb, but by 2013 the local herd had doubled. On Jan. 3, wildlife officials brought an additional 13 bighorns to the area, bringing the total population to 41.
The new transplants included one ram, seven ewes and five lambs. There’s no longer a domestic sheep industry in the area, and hunting regulations protect the animals, but Sidener said the bighorns still face threats from disease. To ensure the local herd stays healthy, both groups of bighorns were transplanted from the Basalt State Wildlife Area.
“It’s important to get sheep from same area so disease background is the same,” Sidener said. “We have to be very careful of how we move sheep, we can’t get them willy-nilly from other areas.”
Like the 2009 transplants, the 13 new bighorns were brought by truck in horse trailers. Wildlife officials gave them a light dose of tranquilizer to ease them through the handling process and to administer “booster shots” to further help the animals fight disease. CPW will track the sheep with radio collars and ear tag transmitters to record their progress.
According to Sidener, the goal is to ultimately restore a healthy, sustainable population that provides a chance for wildlife viewing and an opportunity for future hunting.
“For all states with bighorn sheep, they’re an important resource and important to the public,” he said.
“For all states with bighorn sheep, they’re an important resource and important to the public.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife