Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Jeopardy

Bighorn Sheep on Wild Horse Island
Every summer I travel to my grandparents cabin on Wild Horse Islandon Flathead Lake near Missoula, Montana.  My grandparents purchased their property back in the 1970s (and have the burnt orange shag to prove it), but since then the Island has been made into a Montana State Park.  There are some fantastic wildlife-viewing opportunities on Wild Horse: it is home to coyote, mule deer, bald eagle, osprey, bighorn sheep, and yes, even a few wild horses.

My favorite wildlife species on the island are the bighorn sheep.  Catching a glimpse of the majestic, curved horns on a ram makes a tough hike totally worth it.  The males are large, occasionally getting up to over 350 lb with horns that can weigh up to 30 lb.

Once numbering in the millions, this iconic wild western species had crashed to only several thousand in the early 20th century.  Today, bighorn sheep populations represent only 70% of historic levels.

Bighorn sheep protections are under threat once again—this time from Congress.  National Wildlife Federation and Idaho Wildlife Federation’s efforts to protect bighorns scored a major victory earlier this year, but some in Congress are trying to reverse that success.

A “Bad Bighorn Sheep Rider” may find its way into a package of appropriations bills which is being negotiated right now.  The policy rider would reverse an important Forest Service decision to close much of Idaho’s Payette National Forest to domestic sheep grazing where conflicts with bighorns exist.

Protecting and rebuilding Bighorn Sheep populations depends upon effective separation from domestic sheep, according to extensive research and field experience by  wildlife managers and researchers from throughout the West (including Idaho Wildlife Federation and the Nez Perce).

If this bad wildlife rider passes, it would set a precedent that would ensure that bighorns will continue to die off across the west.  Entire herds are at risk of disappearing for the benefit of a couple ranching interests.  Not to mention the rider would jeopardize big hunting and outdoor recreation dollars bighorn sheep generate for western communities.

Rob Fraser, President of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, laid out what is at stake in a recent guest opinion article:

“Bighorn sheep are an icon of Idaho and vitally important to sportsmen and all Idahoans who cherish wildlife and the rugged fabric that makes the state special. We can’t take what we have in Idaho for granted and let politics trump science, forcing our land managers to do nothing while domestic sheep roam alongside wild bighorn sheep. The loss of native bighorn sheep populations such as those in the Salmon River Mountains would denigrate the legacy of wildlife diversity for future generations.”

Keep checking Wildlife Promise for more information on all the different harmful policy riders that could make it into the appropriations bills.