DOW Releases Bighorns in Debeque and Animas Canyons

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The Division of Wildlife, continuing its half-century effort to reestablish Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in their native habitat, released 25 animals at two Western Slope locations last week.

DeBeque Canyon, just northeast of Grand Junction, received 18 sheep (seven ewes, three yearling rams, five ram lambs and three ewe lambs), restoring a population in native bighorn habitat. Farther to the south in the Animas Canyon, seven sheep were released Thursday to augment a herd that was reestablished two years ago.

The two releases are the latest in a 50-year-old Division of Wildlife (DOW) program to reestablish populations of Colorado’s state animal. More than 7,000 bighorn sheep now inhabit the state, a three-fold increase over the past three decades.

“This has been a multi-million dollar effort over the past 50 years,” said John Ellenberger, the Division’s big game coordinator.

“If we find areas that once had bighorn sheep and still have the appropriate habitat to support them, we try to repopulate those areas,” Ellenberger said. “We’re about at the point where most of the historic range that once supported sheep has received transplants.”

The sheep released in DeBeque were captured from the Rampart Range herd Feb. 14 just west of Colorado Springs. More than 30 volunteers joined DOW staff members as a large drop net was released over the animals as they ate feed used to bait them to the site.

The animals were then checked to make sure they were in good shape before they were loaded into trailers for the trip to their new DeBeque Canyon home.

The DeBeque Canyon and its side canyons, located west and north of the Colorado River, will provide approximately 53 square miles of excellent sheep habitat according to Joe Gumber, the DOW’s district wildlife manager in the area who did most of the planning for the release.

“The canyon has the steep and rugged terrain that bighorn sheep rely on for feeding, lamb rearing and escaping from predators,” said Gumber.

The herd objective is 125 animals with a maximum population of 141.

The release is considered a reintroduction due to archeological evidence, including petroglyphs (wall carvings of bighorns) and artifacts (bighorn sheep bones), that suggests the canyon supported a sheep population.

“Historical information that was obtained indicates sheep inhabited the surrounding area of the Upper Book Cliffs, north of Grand Junction and upper Roan Creek up until the 1930s,” Gumber said.

The animals released in the Animas Canyon, north of Durango, had a more interesting trip to their new home. After being trapped near Georgetown Wednesday, they were trucked to Durango. Thursday morning, they boarded the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and took their first train ride to the release site.

“We released 28 sheep in the Animas Canyon in January, 2001 and they’ve done well,” said Drayton Harrison, the DOW’s district wildlife manager in the area. “The release has been successful and most of the sheep are still in the area.

“But we don’t have as many young rams as we’d like, so we decided to augment the population to increase the chances of reestablishing the population,” Harrison said.

According to accounts from early naturalists, there may have been as many as two million bighorn sheep in North America at the beginning of the 19th century.

“Bighorns occupied many areas of the state, including the foothills along the Front Range, the high mountain valley and peaks as well as the canyons,” Ellenberger said. “There were accounts of herds containing a thousand animals. Bighorns were a species commonly seen in the early 1800s.

“But bighorn sheep haven’t been able to adapt to human presence as well as deer, elk and other species,” Ellenberger explained. “Field and laboratory studies have shown that when bighorns are exposed to domestic sheep, they contract infections that can prove fatal.

“For whatever reason, bighorn sheep are very susceptible to disease.”

Each of the animals released by the DOW are given drugs to ward off infections that can lead to fatal cases of pneumonia.

Ellenberger said the DOW would continue to augment populations and to fill the last remaining locations where bighorns can thrive.

“We’ll never have herds of bighorns as large as we once did, but we think we can have viable populations over many areas of the state for years to come,” Ellenberger said.