Wild Sheep and RMBS

Bighorn sheep have been on my mind the last month or so. Could be that reminiscing with Brian Talbot about the ram he took down The Yakima River Canyon in November. Maybe it’s the conference call Joe Zbylski and I will have with some of the sheep biologists and pros in Washington to discuss current and future plans for dealing with die-offs and health issues affecting the wild sheep of Paradise. Perhaps, it is my struggle to decide where I will throw my large number of preference points this month as I (with thousands of others) submit my application for a Washington state bighorn sheep special hunt permit. Be that as it may, Edward (last of the Hucklings) and I were in Denver a week ago at the annual meeting of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society (RMBS).

Joe and I, with Max Tallent, Marv Clyncke and a handful of other bighorn sheep nuts, founded the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society in Denver in 1975. Bighorns across much of the West were on the losing side of interactions with domestic sheep and habitat loss, and we thought maybe we could do something to help these icons of our wild places. Then, as now, the Society’s mission was “to promote the science-based management of the bighorn sheep, educate the public about their life and habitat, and assure the sportsman’s rights in proper opportunities.”

In those early years, we raised money for research programs and brought together folks with ideas. Over a few years, we were able to get nearly a hundred people at annual meetings, and raise a few thousand bucks for important work.

When I moved back to the Northwest, I lost track of many of my sheep-nut colleagues. In March of 2000, on a perfect early spring morning, I got a call at my office in Central’s Lind Hall. “This Jim Huckabay?” “Uh… Yeah…” “Man…” the guy said, “You don’t know what I’ve gone through to find you! Finally got your numbers from Max Tallent, down in Colorado Springs. Anyhow, I’m Bud Henderson, president of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, and we’re having our 25th Annual Banquet in April.”

“25th Annual? 25 years? How could it be 25 years?” My head was spinning.

“So the membership and board selected a handful of people who did the most in the early years to keep the Society going, and we have an award of recognition for you. We’d love it if you could be at the banquet. A lot of the other old-timers will be there…” “Early years? …Other old-timers?” I sat down.

Edward and I went to that 2000 banquet.

Since the turn of the Century, I have renewed many of those sheep-nut relationships and continue to write, talk and think about bighorn sheep and their ongoing issues. 2017 seemed like a good year to take in another RMBS banquet.

It is generally agreed that wild sheep evolved in Asia during the early Pleistocene, within the last couple million years. They probably developed their distinctive characteristics while isolated in ice-free periods during the latter part of the Pleistocene. In those times, when the continental and cordilleran glaciers melted sufficiently, ancestors of our modern wild sheep migrated southward into what is today western Canada and the USA. The isolation of various bighorn bands in those areas during later glaciations resulted in the different subspecies of bighorn sheep.

In Washington we have Rocky Mountain bighorns (Ovis canadensis) and California bighorns (Ovis canadensis californiana). The sheep of Paradise are California bighorns – slightly smaller than the Rocky Mountain sheep.

You are likely well aware of the sheep die-offs in Paradise and around the West. More is learned each year about how these things spread, along with how much – or little – patience must be practiced when wild sheep start dying.

In 1995-96, pneumonia almost wiped out wild bighorn herds in the Blue Mountains and in the Hells Canyon area of Idaho and Oregon along the Snake River. Many herds are still rebuilding. In 2007 and again in ’15 we had outbreaks in our Yakima Canyon Umtanum herd. Tests at Washington State University confirmed infections with Mycoplasma and Pasteurella, along with a variety of other genetically-distinct bacteria which trigger several pneumonias with widely varying outcomes.

Sheep in The Canyon are important; of our state’s 1,500 wild bighorns – 18 herds in central and eastern Washington – more than half are along the Yakima River. Bighorn sheep ewes that survive a pneumonia outbreak often cannot produce surviving offspring for up to ten years (most lambs die in their first six months).

Several of the states around us deal with similar situations. All have developed strict rules about the intermingling of wild sheep and their domestic relatives (unaffected by Pasteurella and Mycoplasma). The risk to wild sheep is very high – almost any nose to nose greeting will infect a wild sheep with enough bacteria to spread like wildfire through its entire herd. Some states have followed Colorado’s lead in giving carte blanche to the killing of any bighorn found near domestic sheep. A die-off is never easy to watch or manage.

Last week’s 2017 banquet? We had a great time. RMBS has grown over the decades. There were 370 men, women and children at the banquet. Money raised with raffles and auctions still goes to support wild sheep, but it now adds up to $100,000 or more annually.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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