Idaho’s dwindling Bighorns: Is there hope for a population on the brink?

Bighorn sheep in Zion National Park, UT.

Bighorn sheep in Zion National Park, UT.

AdittheStargazer, flickr.

Bighorn could make a comeback

Their populations have been ravaged, their lambs taken by disease. But now, after decades of decline, Idaho’s hammered bighorn populations could have a chance of making a comeback.

Today, only about 2,000 bighorn sheep still live in Idaho, a miniscule number compared to the tens of thousands of bighorn that once lived in the state’s rugged hills and rocky crags.

“Right now they’re quite a treat to see because there aren’t that many around,” said Craig Gehrke, The Wilderness Society’s Regional Director in Idaho.

Gehrke has been part of the effort to help restore the bighorn in Idaho, where numbers have plummeted due to a strain of rapidly spreading pneumonia contracted by contact with domestic sheep.

The bighorn are exposed to the disease through domestic herds that are allowed to graze on public lands in the rugged Hells Canyon and Salmon River area of the Payette National Forest, where impossibly deep gorges and rocky terrain are home to bighorn.

Once one bighorn picks up the disease from a domestic, it spreads rapidly through the herd through nose to nose contact or a simple sneeze in the grass where the sheep eat.

Wildlife specialists say the restoration of the bighorn will likely take a long time because the disease can persist in a population years after exposure.

However, protecting them from exposure is the start they need.

To that end, The Wilderness Society and an alliance of local and national groups and the Nez Perce Tribe has helped keep domestic sheep out of areas of the Payette in the past two grazing seasons. After taking the Forest Service to court more than two years ago, the groups secured a settlement requiring the Forest Service to stop turnout in the highest risk areas near the Hells Canyon and Salmon River bighorn populations.

Now, Gehrke says, there is even greater hope for a revival of Idaho’s bighorn if the Forest Service follows through with proposed plans to permanently keep bighorn separated from the domestic herds in the Payette — one of the last places of critical bighorn habitat where such contact is allowed to happen in the state.

While wildlife specialists have suspected the disease transmission for decades, it’s only been recently that land managers pushed an end to contact in order to preserve the bighorn.

“The science has really come together in the past ten years. Wildlife managers are saying it’s an issue, and that the prudent manager would keep these animals separate,” Gehrke said.

The Forest Service is in the process of accepting public comments about bighorn and could make final decision in 2009.