Colorado: Biologists launch bighorn sheep study

Bighorn sheep in Colorado. Photo courtesy Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Tracking Aspen-area herds may help conservation efforts

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — With bighorn sheep herds in the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness declining due to respiratory disease, Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers want to know if interaction with domestic sheep herds is a factor.

To track the movements of bighorn sheep in Pitkin and Gunnison counties, biologists and wildlife technicians recently captured 10 bighorn sheep rams and fitted them with special collars that will transmit location data. The operation was the start of a new, cooperative study with the U.S. Forest Service to monitor the movements and distribution of rams from three herds in the area.

Little is currently known about the third herd and agency staff eagerly anticipates the useful knowledge about all three herds the new study will generate.

“These are iconic animals in Colorado and it’s important that we do what we can to ensure that these herds continue to exist,” said Julie Mao, terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Glenwood Springs. “The study will provide invaluable information about these herds … including whether the three herds interact with each other and whether they cross areas allotted for domestic sheep.”

According to wildlife managers, rams are the focus of the study because they generally travel further than ewes. If infected, the rams could transmit the disease to uninfected wild sheep when they return to their herds.

Information gathered from this study may help agency officials and livestock managers minimize the amount of inter-species contact, keeping potential disease transmission to a minimum.

“Learning more about their movements is critical in keeping wild and domestic sheep herds from overlapping,” said Perry Will, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Glenwood Springs. “We will focus on limiting interactions and we anticipate good results from this strategy.”

The sheep were “net gunned” from a helicopter – a commonly used method of capturing ungulates. Wildlife managers say that the efficiency of net gunning made it possible to meet their goal of collaring 10 animals in just one day, reducing the impact to the sheep and people who were recreating there that day.

Will adds that assistance from the U.S. Forest Service made the operation in the wilderness area possible. As a project partner, the U.S. Forest Service will work with livestock producers to collar and monitor domestic sheep in the area to study their movements.

“We often rely on our partners for cooperation as we manage wildlife, and we thank the Forest Service for their help,” he said. “This is a positive start for very important research that impacts everyone in Colorado.”

Funds for the study came from the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, Colorado’s Auction and Raffle Program and the Wild Sheep Foundation, with the majority of funds coming from Colorado’s sportsmen.

There are two species of bighorn in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain bighorn, which is native, and the desert bighorn, introduced near the Colorado National Monument in 1979.

The bighorn sheep is Colorado’s official animal and the symbol of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Colorado is home to the largest population of the species anywhere.


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