Species Spotlight: Bighorn Sheep

fact

Western Rattlesnake

Western Rattlesnake

Also known as the Great Basin Rattlesnake, these pit vipers have buff-tan coloring and small, oval blotches to blend into their arid surroundings. Small heat-sensing indentations on each side of the snake’s snout detects warm-blooded prey for better striking accuracy in the dark. Source: The Oregon Encyclopedia

Latin name: Crotalus oreganus lutosus

voices

Karen Garber, volunteer since 2017

Karen Garber, volunteer since 2017

So glad we got to do a stewardship trip with ONDA this summer, and now I’m more inspired than ever to start hiking the Oregon Desert Trail in bits and pieces.

voices

Cregg Large, member since 2009

Cregg Large, member since 2009

“I came to Oregon 12 years ago from Texas. Texas, for all its size, has very little public land. Coming to Oregon has made me realize the special gift we as Americans have in our public lands. Volunteering with an organization like ONDA is my way of reciprocating for this gift. Through restoration efforts, I feel we are helping leave a better place than we found it. Through advocating for protection for public lands, we safeguard migration routes for animals and keep the land where it belongs: with the public.”

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

Larisa Bogardus

California Bighorn Sheep

Zachary MacCoy   Website

The Rocky Mountain subspecies (O. c. canadensis) prefer the higher, cooler elevations in the northeast section of our state, such as the Wallowa and Blue Mountains. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that there are somewhere around 800 of these large animals in the higher reaches of the Blue and Wallowa Mountain Ranges, and Hells Canyon, with perhaps the largest single herd centered around Baker City.

The California subspecies (O. c. californiana) numbering now maybe 3,500 to 4,000 in Oregon, are distributed around the drier parts of our state in roughly 30 herds. Since there are more of them, this subspecies is the one you are more likely to see. Look primarily around large rocky cliffs and mountains throughout the Great Basin and surrounding areas. Reliable places to see them are along the cliffs next to I-84 between The Dalles and about Arlington (the famous, or infamous in terms of rubber-necking accidents, “Highway Herd”), Steens Mountain, Hart Mountain, John Day River, the east side of Lake Owyhee around Leslie Gulch, and the Pueblo Range. You can, however, encounter them in many other areas throughout the Sagebrush Sea if the habitat is right.

Bighorn’s habitat of choice — large, steep rocky areas with good forage — affords them considerable protection, but they are preyed upon and they do get eaten. Aside from death by encounters with vehicles (especially along roadsides in states that use salt on the roads, as bighorn come down to eat the salt), significant regulated take by hunters, and sometimes considerable mortality from microbes, bighorn also have a variety of predators. Wild hunters of bighorn include cougars, wolves, bobcats, coyotes, bears, possibly wolverines, and even golden eagles. The lambs, obviously, are most easily hunted and killed. A reported tactic of golden eagles is to harass lambs and drive them off of a cliff. Herds will migrate up and down in elevation as seasons, vegetation and water availability dictate, but typically don’t move as far horizontally across the landscape as, say, a herd of elk might travel.

ONDA’s work to conserve the high desert’s biodiversity and most ecologically important landscapes and habitats includes some of the most storied and important bighorn sheep herds in the state. Our work to protect places like the Greater Hart-Sheldon, Owyhee Canyonlands, and John Day River Basin helps to improve the outlook for these icons of the West.

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  • About Resource Management Plans and ONDA’s ongoing efforts to develop common-sense public lands management to preserve these key habitats.

*Depending on the source you consult, you can find different numbers of subspecies of Ovis canadensis. Back in the 1940s, Ian McTaggart-Cowan split the species into seven subspecies — three mountain bighorns and four desert bighorns. In the 1990s, Ramey et al asserted that the division into seven subspecies “is largely illusory” and used DNA testing to suggest just three subspecies: Rocky Mountain, Sierra Nevada, and Desert. The Department of the Interior has determined that the Sierra Nevada subspecies is a separate subspecies from California subspecies, and not a distinct population segment of the California subspecies, and are listed as endangered. The Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), lists eight subspecies, but this doesn’t necessarily represent the accepted number today, but shows all subspecies that were ever identifiedYou can expect classifications and names to change over time as biologists continue their research and publish their work.

 

kayaker in red kayak with dog

About the Author

Scott Bowler is a retired science educator now living in Sisters and doing environmental service work for fun. An ONDA member since 2000, he participated in the very first ONDA fence pull on Steens Mountain and has taken part many more since then. In recognition of the many ways he engages in desert conservation, he earned ONDA’s Conservationist of the Year award in 2020.

Species Spotlight: Bighorn Sheep

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