Species Spotlight: Bighorn Sheep

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John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

Restoration is hard slow work. It takes hold, or it doesn’t, in fits and starts. The immensity of the need can be discouraging, but we must carry on. I am so thankful ONDA carries on.

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Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

“Protecting public land is part of my spiritual being. It’s central to my identity to be in wilderness and to see it protected.” Durlin is proud to protect public lands for future generations, saying, “The highlight of my childhood was our family’s weekend outdoor trips. I look forward to my grandchildren having similar experiences outside in their lifetimes, and it wouldn’t be possible without ONDA.”

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The Last Darkness

The Last Darkness

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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