Last Chance to R.O.A.R. for Bighorn Sheep

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Bighorn Sheep scaling the mountain side. Photo by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Norman Levine.

Wild bighorn sheep have had a long, enduring history. European settlement of the West proved devastating for bighorns. By the early decades of the 20th century, bighorn sheep trended toward extinction, their numbers estimated at no more than 15,000. Bighorn numbers grew slowly through much of the late 20th century, peaking at around 70,000 animals.

Since the 1980s, Rocky Mountain bighorns have suffered steep decline, with populations falling as low as 30,000 by the beginning of the 21st century. The most recent (2012) population estimates for 12 states of the West are about 33,000 Rocky Mountain bighorns. Today, bighorns occupy only a fraction of available and suitable habitat. Bighorn populations struggle despite the fact that hunting is limited and closely regulated, and despite tremendous effort and expenditures from state wildlife agencies aimed at promoting bighorn populations.

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Bighorn sheep in the Rocky Mountains. Photo courtesy of Steve Woodruff.

So, why don’t we see more bighorns? Extensive scientific research confirms that disease transmitted to wild sheep through contact with domestic sheep is the primary limiting factor today for bighorn sheep populations. Even healthy domestic sheep can carry pathogens for which bighorn sheep have little or no immunity. Respiratory disease (viral pneumonia) stands out as the major disease of concern.

Pneumonia outbreaks exact a heavy toll on bighorn herds, with mortality commonly running 50 percent or more – sometimes reaching 100 percent of a herd. Disease outbreaks also suppress lamb survival for years following an initial outbreak, because surviving ewes infect their offspring, slowing herd recovery.

In response to the threat, NWF has pioneered a widely accepted approach to resolving livestock/wildlife conflicts through voluntary, market-based agreements negotiated with livestock operators and land managers.

To date, NWF’s Adopt a Wildlife Acre program has effectively eliminated livestock conflicts involving grizzly bears, wolves and bison across 675,000 acres surrounding Yellowstone National Park and Montana’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge combined. NWF is now pursuing grazing retirements that will ease and accelerate the transition away from domestic sheep grazing on public lands in proximity to occupied bighorn habitat, such as in the Centennial Mountains in Montana and Idaho. But we need your help!

NWF has joined Animal Planet’s R.O.A.R. campaign in order to REACH OUT, ACT, and RESPOND for bighorn sheep. These iconic American animals are counting on us. Without a safe place to roam, we will see their numbers continue to decline.

Today, we need your help to ensure that bighorn sheep and their offspring have a future in the American wilderness. NWF proudly participates in Animal Planet’s R.O.A.R Campaign with our Adopt a Wildlife Acre program, which ends on October 7th, 2014. Your donation will make a significant impact for bighorn sheep.

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