BACK IN A BIGHORN WAY
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
It was an inauspicious ending, especially for a species with such a rugged past and regal appearance.
Sometime in 1941 a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep was killed illegally in the Eagle Caps by a hunting guide. The ram is believed to have been the last native Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in Oregon, said Bill Brown of Spokane.
Brown worked for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in La Grande from the late 1940s through 1976. He was the supervisor of the ODFW's Northeast Region for 27 years before retiring.
Brown said that the 1941 bighorn ram poaching was not publicized, but that local wildlife officials agreed that it was probably the last Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in Oregon.
Today, Rocky Mountain bighorns are back in a big way because of a successful transplant program that started in Northeast Oregon in 1971. There are an estimated 600 Rocky Mountain bighorns in the Wallowas and Hells Canyon within 12 separate herds.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is launching a new effort to solidify their future.
The ODFW is developing a new plan for managing Rocky Mountain and California bighorn sheep in Oregon. The revised plan emphasizes transplanting Rocky Mountain bighorns into historic habitat and ensuring that California bighorns maintain genetic diversity and expand their range.
The plan also includes a proposal for management direction for Rocky Mountain goats. This plan identifies potential transplant sites where habitat is suitable for mountain goats. Presently there is not a management plan for Rocky Mountain goats in place.
The ODFW recently took input on the plan at 14 public meetings throughout the state. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will vote on adoption of the bighorn sheep and mountain goat plan later this summer.
The draft plan contains more than management proposals, it also has a smorgasbord of information about the history of bighorns and mountain goats in Eastern Oregon. It answers many questions commonly asked about bighorns and mountain goats.
Following is information on the history of bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats. The information is from the ODFW's draft plan except where noted.
How important are bighorn sheep to Native Americans?
Archeological evidence suggests that bighorn sheep were important to Native Americans as a source of food and clothing. Petroglyphs depicting bighorn sheep can be found in several locations within their original ranges.
How abundant were Oregon's bighorn sheep in the 1800s?
Bighorn populations were so strong during the 1800s that the sheep were a primary source of food for settlers and miners.
Why did bighorns disappear from Eastern Oregon?
Bighorns were hurt not only by hunters but also by large bands of domestic sheep which were present in Eastern Oregon from 1880 to 1920. Many of these bands were taken through bighorn sheep habitat and likely came into contact with bighorns. Unfortunately, at the time it was not known that domestic sheep carry diseases that are fatal to bighorn sheep. These include a bacteria that causes a form of pneumonia which is deadly to bighorns.
It is believed that domestic sheep herds had a major impact on the fall bighorn populations.
When did bighorns disappear from Eastern Oregon?
California bighorn sheep disappeared from southeast Oregon by 1915 and Rocky Mountain bighorns were gone from Northeast Oregon at least by 1945.
When did efforts to restore Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep begin?
The first transplant was made in 1939 when 23 Rocky Mountain bighorns were brought to the Hart Mountain area in Lake County from Montana. The transplant was not successful.
The next transplant was in April 1971 when 20 bighorns were brought to Upper Hells Canyon area from Jasper Park in Alberta, Canada. Since then about 400 Rocky Mountain bighorns have been released in Wallowa and Baker counties. There have been about 30 transplants.
When did the California bighorn transplant program begin?
The first transplant was made in 1954 when 20 California bighorns from Williams Lake, British Columbia, were released in a 1,000- acre holding pasture on the west face of Hart Mountain. The population thrived and through 1992 was the source of most California bighorn transplants in Oregon.
Since then 1,032 California bighorns have been transplanted in Baker, Lake, Harney, Malheur, Grant, Gilliam, Sherman and Wasco counties.
There were three transplants in the 1960s, six in the 1970s, 18 in the 1980s, 33 in the 1990s and 11 during this decade.
How many California bighorns are there today in Oregon?
Oregon now supports about 3,000 California bighorns in 28 herds.