Eight years after the Hayman burn scorched 138,000 acres of land, the largest wildfire in Colorado history, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) has transplanted Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep into their historic habitat.
Nine female and three male bighorn sheep from the Rampart Range herd near Colorado Springs were released within the perimeter of the burn on January 11th and 12th of this year. This area is adjacent to habitat occupied by the Tarryall-Kenosha Mountains bighorn sheep herd.
Wildfire can be good for wildlife. In this case, plant growth since the early 1900's had covered the site in dense forest, which precluded bighorn sheep use for the last 50 years. However, the massive fire cleaned out large areas of dense trees, improving the habitat potential for sheep. Bighorns typically thrive in steep, broken terrain devoid of dense vegetation. In Colorado, they prefer habitat dominated by grass, low shrubs, and rocky terrain for escape.
DOW biologists, working with additional funds from the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, began studying the site for reintroduction in 2006. GIS mapping analysis and site visits confirmed that conditions were ripe for the return of the bighorns, as five years after the burn; the site had not grown over with the previously thick tree canopy.
"Moving sheep to their historic range due to the Hayman Burn shows that good things can often come from tragic events," said Janet George, senior terrestrial biologist with the Northeast region of the DOW. "As the state animal, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are one of our most prized wildlife, with visitors coming from all over the states to hunt and view these magnificent animals. It is gratifying to be part of an opportunity to expand their range and give them a shot at a larger population."
Ten of the twelve sheep, nine ewes and one ram, were radio collared prior to release and are being monitored regularly. Since the release, their movements indicate the bighorns have been exploring a five-mile radius around the release site and have stayed within the perimeter of the Hayman Burn. Additional sheep will likely be transported to the area next year. The sheep will continue to be monitored for the next several years, as DOW studies the success of the transplant.
For more information on bighorn sheep in Colorado, go to:wildlife.state.co.us/WildlifeSpecies/Profiles/Mammals/BighornSheep.htm