Species Spotlight: Bighorn Sheep

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Sarah Graham, Sage Sustainers Member

Sarah Graham, Sage Sustainers Member

“I contribute to ONDA monthly because it adds up to a larger annual gift than what I’d be able to comfortably afford if I were to do a simple one-time donation annually. I’m able to give more to ONDA this way and have greater impact which is important to me, and my dog Polly.”

fact

Bobcat

Bobcat

Found only in North America, where it is the most common wildcat, the bobcat takes its common name from its stubby, or “bobbed,” tail. The cats range in length from two to four feet and weigh 14 to 29 pounds. Bobcats mainly hunt rabbits and hares, but they will also eat rodents, birds, bats, and even adult deer.

Latin name: Lynx rufus fasciatus

 

fact

Swallowtail

Swallowtail

The Oregon Swallowtail butterfly is the official state insect of Oregon and a true native of the Pacific Northwest. The Swallowtail can be seen in the lower sagebrush canyons of the Columbia River and its tributaries, including the Snake River drainage area.  Source: State Symbols USA

Latin name: Papilio oregonius

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.

Learn More

  • 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.

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