At their peak, more than two million bighorns roamed the West, gracefully cavorting on rocky hillsides from California to Nebraska.
But by the late 19th century, bighorn sheep were in trouble. The domestic sheep industry had taken hold in the West, and wild sheep had no immunity against diseases introduced by European livestock. As millions of domestic sheep inundated the landscape, deadly pathogens such as scabies and pneumonia decimated the bighorn population. Unregulated hunting took a toll on the few wild herds that remained.
By 1940, the bighorn population had plummeted to fewer than 20,000, isolated in tiny enclaves scattered across the Western states.
In recent decades, state wildlife management agencies have undertaken extensive conservation work to help bring bighorn sheep back from the brink. Much of the work focuses on capturing bighorns from successful herds and relocating these sheep to other areas where the species once thrived.
To find those areas, state agencies looked to an array of sources, from archaeological studies of Native American hunting grounds to the expedition notes of Lewis and Clark.
Biologists then carried out surveys to assess whether this range could still support wild sheep. Highways, housing developments and solar fields now dominate much of the once rugged Western landscape, leaving large areas uninhabitable for bighorns. Elsewhere, mining has polluted water sources needed to sustain big game.
Once wildlife managers pinpointed habitats where bighorns could still thrive, “it was just a matter of organizing our ability to figure out how to successfully and humanely capture those animals,” said Mike Cox, a staff biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. (via A Symbol of the Range Returns Home - NYTimes.com)
Source: The New York Times
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