Conserving Bighorn Sheep in the Northern Rockies – First Lite Performance Hunting
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Conserving Bighorn Sheep in the Northern Rockies

Posted by Ford Van Fossan on
Kit in ActionSW First Lite Team Member Kit Fischer of the National Wildlife Federation with a newly released bighorn. Photo: Steve Woodruff

Last year, the National Wildlife Federation (one of the founding First Lite Partners in Conservation) launched a new initiative to protect imperiled bighorn sheep in the West. While bighorn numbers historically were estimated at 2 million nationwide, the population has declined precipitously since the mid-1800s due largely to loss of suitable habitat and disease spread from domestic sheep. Recent estimates place the number of bighorn in this country at 50,000 individuals.

Ellis_Peak_in_the_Tendoy_Mountains_location_of_disease__imperaled_Bighorn_Sheep_2_of_35_Grid7 Bighorn populations in the Tendoy Mountains of Montana have been ravaged by disease transmitted by range sheep. Photo: Bruce Gordon.

To combat this decline, in 2015 NWF launched a new initiative focused on maintaining separation between domestic and wild sheep and increasing available habitat. We are working closely with our sportsmen partners, including the Wild Sheep Foundation and state wildlife federation affiliates in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming to address challenges and opportunities facing bighorn sheep in the West.

You Gotta Keep ‘em Separated

Specifically, we are addressing the risk of contact between domestic sheep and bighorn sheep on public grazing allotments managed by the Forest Service and The Bureau of Land Management. Region 4 of the U.S. Forest Service (ID, WY, UT, and NV) is completing a risk of contact analysis to identify areas where domestic sheep and bighorn sheep occupy the same habitat.

IMG_1752 A sedated bighorn is examined by wildlife professionals. Photo: Kit Fischer

As a primary method in addressing spatial separation between bighorns and domestic sheep, NWF has developed grazing agreements with willing sellers to retire grazing allotments in areas where there is a high risk of contact. While NWF’s approach to solving bighorn sheep conflicts is relatively new, NWF’s Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program has been working to resolve intractable conflicts between large carnivores and livestock on public lands since 2002.

More Secure Habitat = More Bighorns = More Hunter Opportunity

Over the past 13 years, NWF’s Wildlife Conflict Resolution program has resolved conflicts between livestock and wildlife (native trout, bighorn sheep, wolves, grizzly bears, sage grouse, elk and mule deer) on over 1 Million acres of public lands in the west.

IMG_1737 A helicopter carries a sedated sheep away for relocation. Photo: Kit Fisher

In the past year alone, NWF and our partners developed grazing agreements with sheep producers on nearly 250,000 acres in Wyoming and southern Idaho, securing critical additional habitat and eliminating the risk of contact with domestic sheep. In turn, this will mean larger populations of bighorns and more hunting opportunities for the public. Since the program’s inception, NWF has worked cooperatively with ranchers to eliminate conflict between wildlife and livestock on over 1 Million acres in the west.

These retirements, which are completely voluntary, have received strong support from livestock producers who typically use the payments to secure grazing in new locations without wildlife conflicts. A market approach to changing grazing patterns can turn opponents into partners and provide a positive solution to chronic conflicts between domestic and bighorn sheep. We believe this grazing retirement approach can provide a new conservation model that reduces litigation, sustains agriculture, and re configures grazing to locations where it is compatible and sustainable.

Big_Beaver_Poison_Middle_Shineberger_and_Little_Beaver_Creeks_1_of_29_Grid7 Bighorn habitat along Big Beaver and Poison Creeks in Montana. Photo: Bruce Gordon

While NWF’s bighorn sheep conservation efforts have been effective in increasing habitat and minimizing risk on public lands, there is still plenty of work to be done in restoring bighorns to much of their historical habitat. We look forward to expanding our bighorn conservation efforts in the coming months to Colorado, Oregon, Nevada and Washington as new and exciting opportunities for landscape-level restoration become available.

First Lite Team member Kit Fischer is the Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program Manager for NWF Northern Rockies and Pacific Regional Center.

One of First Lite's founding partners in conservation, the National Wildlife Federation is one of the country's largest and most venerable conservation organizations. For more information on their work or to support NWF's efforts directly please visit www.nwf.org/wcr.

And don't forget to round up your next purchase on firstlite.com to benefit NWF or one of our other conservation partners. 

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