Long ago, thousands of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep roamed the high Sierra, scattered along the crest of the range from Olancha Peak and all the way north to the Lee Vining Canyon area.
Agile, swift, secretive, this unique species of bighorn is only found in one place in the world: the Sierra Nevada; The vast majority of them roam on the Eastern Sierra side of the range. They seldom descend below 4,000 feet, spending most of their lives on the knife-edged, wind-swept peaks and ridges, where they find comparative safety from predators.
But today, there are only about 400 Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep left in the world, a decline caused by hunting, habitat fragmentation, and diseases contracted from domestic stock.
That number, alarming as it is, is actually a success story.
In 1999, there were only 125 Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep left alive, scattered in ragged bands across the Sierra Mountains. That low number landed the sheep squarely on the federal endangered species list in 2000, and plunged the state’s wildlife managers into a fierce race against time.
That race continues today. According to Inyo National Forest wildlife biologist Leeann Murphy, although the bighorn has backed away from the very brink of extinction, there is still a long way to go before the species is safe.
“We lost seven animals out of a herd of about 20 to 30 to avalanches this winter, all of them up in the Mount Warren/Mount Gibbs (Lee Vining Canyon area) herd,” she said.
“Seven is a big number for a band this small, especially if they are female.”
Bighorn herds are isolated from other herds by formidable barriers, including high mountains and lower-elevation human development and stock grazing. They can’t just go down the street to find a mate to replace the one they have lost, making this geographical isolation one of their biggest threats.
One bad winter, one big avalanche in the wrong place at the wrong time, and an entire herd could be gone. With only 16 herds in the Sierra, this is a problem; the more herds, the more animals that are in the herd, the better the species’ chance of survival.
“There are still two more areas in the eastern Sierra that we would like to see the sheep reintroduced,” said Dr. Tom Stephenson, the state Fish and Game’s head of the recovery effort.
“There used to be herds in both the Taboose area (west of Independence) and Olancha, near Olancha Peak, and we are hoping to get sheep back into those areas.”
That’s where some high tech tools come in. Land managers are now readying a plan that will allow California Fish and Game officials to land helicopters in pristine backcountry sites that are otherwise off limits to motorized travel.
“About 80 percent of the land that the sheep are on when we can actually translocate them is in the wilderness,” said Murphy. “That means Fish and Game (officials) need our permission to land there.”
It’s all in an attempt to move bighorns to as many suitable canyons as is necessary to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. Right now, there are still several areas, including several on the Eastside, that were the historical home of the sheep, and that are designated by the recovery plan as critical habitat for a full recovery of the species overall.
Until these canyons have viable herds, the bighorn will remain on the endangered species list; something that almost no one wants.
Before Fish and Game officials can get that permission, the issue must go to the public for comment and an Environmental Assessment must be done.
That process begins this month. Comments are due by July 20.