Bighorn Populations Reach Historic Milestone
By Aaron Meier
Mike Cox, game biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, was in his office after hours working on the statewide desert bighorn population estimate for 2017. As he finished inputting all of the herd estimates, he glanced at the total. The number was over 10,000. He checked his numbers again and even made sure his formulas were correct, but the number stayed the same.
“There was this moment where I was all alone in my office and I paused and thought, “Wow. This is not a little thing that we just accomplished,” said Cox. “I took a minute and thought about all of the biologists through the years, all of the NGOs (non-governmental organization) that partnered with us, the countless projects…everything that went into this success and it was a little overwhelming. This really was a team effort by everyone.”
Nevada’s bighorn population was estimated at over 30,000 in 1860 based on historic accounts, archeological evidence, mapping of bighorn habitat, and a conservative bighorn density. Tragically, many of these bighorn herds were wiped out by the early 1900s due to livestock diseases, over-hunting, human disturbance, and a host of other causes. For example, the last sighting of bighorns in the Ruby Mountains was in 1921.
“Nevada was somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 bighorn in the late 1940s,” said Cox. “It has taken years of hard work but our estimate for desert bighorn sheep is over 10,000 this year, and for all bighorn subspecies (Rocky Mountain, California and Desert), the population is over 12,000. That is more wild sheep than any other state except for Alaska.”
As part of the bighorn restoration program that began in the 1960s but truly took off and intensified in the 1980s, biologists and sportsmen together have released over 3,300 bighorn sheep in Nevada and built over 180 water developments.
Cox points to a long list of conservation groups and agencies who were instrumental in this recovery process including Nevada Bighorns Unlimited Reno and Fallon Chapters (NBU), Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn, Safari Club International, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Desert and Sheldon National Wildlife Refuges. Additional groups that have greatly contributed to continued bighorn restoration in the recent decades are: Elko Bighorns Unlimited, NBU-Midas Chapter, Nevada Muleys, Wild Sheep Foundation (National and chapter affiliates: Eastern, Midwest and Iowa), and the Nevada Wildlife Heritage Program.
“There were definitely years where our NGOs carried the day,” said Cox. “This success has been an absolute team effort. This is just proof of what you can accomplish when everyone is pulling for the same thing.”
The recreational opportunities from this great success are also pretty astonishing. Almost 6,800 bighorn rams have been harvested since the first hunting season in 1952. This includes 5,690 deserts, 974 California, and 115 Rocky Mountain bighorn rams. The unique opportunity to spot, stalk and harvest a bighorn ram in the rugged and steep Nevada mountains, who some consider an original “extreme” sport, has grown from 139 tags in 1990 to 397 tags in 2017. Hunting opportunities from reintroduced herds make up 58% of the total bighorn tags statewide.
“All those people and organizations that made bighorn restoration a huge success should be proud that bighorns are back where they belong,” said Cox. “All those that hike and play in our mountains now have the opportunity to view bighorn, Nevada’s true natural heritage symbol, in more wild places.”
The Silver State seems to have been made for the bighorn sheep. During his travels through Nevada’s Lake Range north of Reno in 1843, explorer John C. Fremont wrote, “On our road down, the next day, we saw herds of mountain sheep”.
Based on archeological evidence, bighorn sheep distribution was virtually across the entire state prior to European settlement in the early 1800s. Nevada has 314 mountain ranges, more than any other lower 48 state. In addition to being so mountainous, a lack of natural barriers also aided in the broad distribution of bighorn sheep. Bighorn could cross “land bridges” and narrow valleys in their nomadic movements among the various mountain ranges.