An animal location-based habitat suitability model for bighorn sheep and wild horses in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, Montana, and Wyoming

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The purpose of this habitat suitability model is to provide a tool that will help managers and researchers better manage bighorn sheep and wild horses in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (BICA) and Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range (PMWHR). A concern in the management of the Pryor Mountain wild horse population is whether or not the wild horses compete with bighorn sheep for available forage or available space. Two studies have been conducted that have shown no obvious, convincing competition between the two species. A study of diets and habitat-use of both species revealed substantial diet overlap only during some seasons, but there were considerable spatial and habitat separations between wild horses and bighorns during all seasons (Kissell and others, 1996). This empirical data was then used in a modeling exercise that predicted that neither the current (about 160 horses at the time of the analysis) nor larger numbers of wild horses on the area (e.g., about 200 horses) would result in reduced numbers or condition of bighorn sheep (Coughenour 1999). But competition is a very complex biological process to document. Bighorns might have already been spatially avoiding wild horses when these studies were conducted.

A second concern for managers is that earlier studies suggest both species are not using many areas of the range that appear to be suitable (Gudorf and others, 1996; Kissell and others, 1996). A primary goal for the management of both species is to increase their numbers for purposes of genetic conservation and viability. The bighorn sheep population declined during the mid-1990’s from a peak of about 211 animals to ~ 100 animals at present. Absolute minimum goals for genetic viability in the bighorn sheep herd (genetic effective population size of N >50) suggest at least 150 animals should be present, while studies of persistence suggest populations of 250+ are e more likely to recover rapidly and persist should the population experience an epizootic die-off (Singer and others, 2001). Since all bighorn sheep populations are potentially vulnerable to disease epizootics, managing for larger populations of 200–300 animals appears to increase the potential for long-term persistence (Berger, 1990; Singer and others, 2001).

Wild horses are not prone to rapid disease die-offs. However, minimum goals for genetic viability in the Pryor Mountain wild horses ( Ne > 50) require that at least 160 animals be present on the range (Singer and others, 2000). Since the Ne > 50 goal is set for the breeding of domestic animals, and since the vagaries of drought, severe winters, predation, and other stochastic events cause stress in wild animals, larger goals for Ne (e.g. Ne > 100) for wild horses are even more desirable (USDI, BLM, 1999; Gross, 2000). Expanding the area of the wild horse range is one option, but the prospects for expanding the range do not appear to be great (L. Coates-Markle, BLM, oral comm.). A second option would be to increase the amount of useable habitat for horses on the existing range. One goal of this modeling effort was to use GIS-based habitat analyses to determine the reason wild horses are not using some areas of the range, and to explore the potential for making some of these areas useable.

The National Park Service (NPS) has shown considerable interest in management actions within BICA that will increase the range, useable habitat, and population size of bighorn sheep. There has also been interest expressed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and wild horse advocates to improve the useable habitat for wild horses and to possibly increase the size of the horse range.

Publication type Report
Title An animal location-based habitat suitability model for bighorn sheep and wild horses in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, Montana, and Wyoming
Year Published 2004
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description 36 p.
Larger Work Type Report
Larger Work Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Larger Work Title Bighorn sheep habitat studies, population dynamics, and population modeling in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Wyoming and Montana, 2000-2003 (Open-File Report 2004-1337)
First page 167
Last page 202
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