Bighorn Release Planned in Debeque Canyon

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Governor Owens announced, as part of Colorado’s long-term efforts to restore bighorn sheep to their historic range, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will reintroduce bighorn sheep to the Debeque canyon after months of negotiations between ranchers, conservation groups, energy companies, government agencies, and other stakeholders.

The release will involve moving mammals from the Frying Pan River drainage to Debeque Canyon northeast of Grand Junction, and will take place on New Year’s Eve.

Owens said the reintroduction of bighorn sheep in the area and other parts of the state is part of long-term efforts to secure the status of the mammals for future generations and to foster genetic diversity for healthier, stronger herds.

“That’s what Colorado is all about,” said Owens. “That’s why we’re living here. We love and enjoy the wild places and our natural resources, which includes the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.”

Joe Gumber, a DOW wildlife manager for the Debeque District, reiterated the Governor’s sentiments, saying residents and visitors alike will benefit from this program.

“I think by and large the people of Colorado and our visitors want that,” Gumber said. “They expect to see these animals, and enjoy observing them, and taking pictures of them. To some people, just knowing that they are out there means a lot.”

BLM and DOW officials and volunteers will participate in the transfer and release of 15-25 bighorn sheep. The state hopes to establish a herd of 125-140 bighorn sheep in Debeque Canyon, in the Little Bookcliffs Wildhorse Area between Grand Junction and Debeque.

The reintroduction will cost an estimated $350,000, which includes the cost of habitat, range, and road improvements. Upgrades include vegetation treatments and drinking ponds for livestock and wildlife. The BLM will contribute $311,000 in funding for the project and the DOW will contribute another $30,000.

Wildlife officials said state funds include money raised in an annual goat and sheep license auction coordinated by the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society and the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS). FNAWS, a nonprofit Cody, Wyo.-based conservation group, contributed a $5,000 grant for radio collars and helicopter time for aerial sheep surveys. A key private contributor was Dale Albertson, a Debeque rancher who holds a BLM grazing permit in the habitat area, who constructed an $8,000 grazing pasture fence and plans to put in more ponds.

Colorado is home to some 76 bighorn sheep herds, including 24 non-hunted and 52 the state allows hunters to harvest from as part of long-term wildlife management goals, wildlife officials said.

In February, state wildlife biologists and the BLM transferred 18 bighorn sheep from the Rampart Range area near Colorado Springs to Debeque Canyon, where Native American petroglyphs herald the bighorn sheep’s ancient dynasty and archeologists have unearthed centuries-old evidence that early North Americans hunted the mammal. Biologists said bighorn sheep transferred to the region earlier this year are thriving and displaying healthy breeding behavior. Seven ewes have birthed lambs. The breeding season for the bighorn sheep, which runs from November to December, is characterized by the powerful head-butting behavior of rams competing for herd dominance.

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