Debeque Canyon Bighorn Reintroduction Effort Complete

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State and federal wildlife officials released 15 Colorado bighorn sheep last week on federal land northeast of Grand Junction, wrapping up a yearlong initiative to reintroduce the official state animal to part of its native range. Biologists said the effort was also aimed at establishing hardier, healthier herds and preserving bighorn sheep for future generations.

“It’s nice to try to get them back where they once were. It sounds like they are really setting up shop in the area where they were released. A lot of effort went into ensuring the habitat was suitable for them,” said Brandon Diamond, a Gunnison-based Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) terrestrial biologist.

The DOW and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—a major contributor to the project—began implementing the bighorn sheep reintroduction effort in February 2003, after months of negotiations with ranchers, sportsmen and conservation groups, private companies, and other stakeholders.

Some citizens worried the reintroduction effort might spur grazing competition between wildlife, livestock, and wild mustangs in the region. According to recent surveys, however, bighorns fitted with radio transmitters are grazing mostly on cliffs and outcroppings that are inaccessible to livestock and horses.

The number of bighorn sheep reintroduced to the canyon since early last year stands at 48. Last year, 18 were released in February and 15 on New Year’s Eve. On Feb. 27, 2004, state and federal officials and volunteers trapped eight ewes and seven rams in Taylor Canyon at the confluence of the Taylor and East rivers, near Almont and about 11 miles north of Gunnison in southwest Colorado. Later the same day, they released the animals in DeBeque Canyon in the final transfer of animals for the project.

Colorado hopes to establish a population of 125-140 bighorn sheep at the site, where state and federal officials have singled out 34,000 acres of habitat. The region includes the BLM’s Little Bookcliffs Wildhorse and Wilderness Study areas, which is home to some 100 wild mustangs.

“The continued success of bringing bighorn sheep back to the Little Bookcliffs area is certainly exciting for the BLM and exciting for the community,” said BLM Grand Junction Field Manager Catherine Robertson. “This reintroduction project continues to be a model of what we can achieve when local, state and federal agencies work together with private landowners to improve the quality of our natural resources.”

The bighorn sheep habitat near Grand Junction also runs across more than 4,000 acres of private land belonging to ranchers, fruit growers, and private companies. The public has already been able to view bighorn sheep within the Little Bookcliffs Wild Horse Area and from Island Acres State Park on the Colorado River, said DeBeque District Wildlife Manager Joe Gumber.

“It’s great to see the public enjoying these new bighorn sheep in DeBeque Canyon,” Gumber said. “People ask me about the status of the bighorns all the time.”

Biologists, aided in their field tracking research by two Mesa State College students, said the bighorn sheep have adapted well to their new environment. Last summer, seven transplanted ewes each birthed a lamb. Bighorns released in December have been observed within a mile or so of the release site at Main Canyon, researchers said.

“The transplanted animals from Almont will complete the ‘seed’ population in DeBeque Canyon. Hopefully, it will do well and begin thriving on its own,” Diamond said.

Colorado’s bighorn sheep population stands at an estimated 7,465, up from a low of 2,200 in 1970, said DOW Big Game Manager John Ellenberger. The state 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.

Diamond said state wildlife officials have trapped bighorn sheep from the Almont site for years because the population is relatively stable. He said biologists prefer to transplant younger animals and leave behind older sheep to maintain the herd’s traditional migration routes and habitat preferences. The sheep transferred to DeBeque Canyon were younger animals, up to three and a half years old. Biologists determine the age of bighorn sheep by looking at horn growth and tooth eruption, Diamond explained.

“Every year they add another section of horn and there is a prominent ridge between years,” he said. “Horn growth can vary depending on the quality of forage that’s available and environmental conditions. Most horn growth occurs in the first three to four years. After that, they add smaller sections.”

The natural range of the bighorn sheep, an intrinsic and familiar symbol of the DOW’s official insignia, is the Rocky Mountain region, from southern Canada to New Mexico. However, biologists said herds have diminished over the last century due to human encroachment, habitat loss, and disease. Based on archeological evidence such as Native American petroglyphs, bighorn sheep roamed across much of western Colorado before European settlement, said DOW terrestrial biologist Van Graham.

Graham said the state’s early settlers likely contributed to the bighorn sheep’s demise through commercial and private hunting. In addition, while bighorn sheep appear to be hardy, high-mountain animals—a large ram can weigh up to 250 pounds—they are susceptible to disease, Graham said.

“So, reintroduction is kind of a way to extend the range of our bighorn sheep populations in Colorado, which, in a way, helps preserve the species,” he said.

The DeBeque Canyon bighorn sheep reintroduction project is being implemented at a cost of about $205,000 for road and habitat improvements. Contributors include BLM, DOW, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS), and DeBeque rancher Dale Albertson.

Gumber said the project also owes its success to the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, ranchers with key grazing permits, sportsmen’s and conservation groups, local companies and the public.