Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) survivorship and habitat studies in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and surrounding lands, Wyoming and Montana, 2000–2003

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In the 1850s, bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) were numerous and distributed throughout the Bighorn and Pryor Mountains of Montana and Wyoming. After European settlement, bighorn sheep populations declined, and local extinctions occurred in much of their historic range in the western United States. The current bighorn sheep population of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (BICA) is the product of several reintroductions into BICA and surrounding lands. Following a release in 1973 and growth rates near maximum potential of 19.8% per year, the population grew to an estimated peak population of about 211 animals in 1993 and 1994 (Kissell and others, 1996). Recent counts indicate the bighorn sheep population has declined. Kissell and others (1996) reported that the population began to decline rapidly in 1995 and 1996. He noted low ewe:lamb ratios during the decline phase. Bighorn sheep numbers declined to the lowest minimum viable population size of 100 animals recommended by several bighorn sheep experts (Bailey, 1990; Berger, 1990; Smith and others, 1991). National Park Service (NPS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) managers were concerned about the decline and requested a study of its causes. In 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey- Biological Resources Division (USGS-BRD) received funding to start a 3-year study of survivorship, condition, and population growth rate of the BICA bighorn sheep population.

Several possibilities exist for the bighorn sheep decline. The herd may have experienced a rapid population expansion, followed by a decline to stability at a lower long-term carrying capacity. This pattern of apparently overshooting carrying capacity following an initial release has been reported for a number of ungulates (Caughley, 1976). Disease may have caused the decline; predation and/or competition with wild horses (Equus caballus) may also have been factors.

A spatial model of wild horse carrying capacity (Coughenour, 1999) was developed to assist managers in evaluating wild horse population numbers. Studies of summer consumption rates by wild horses and other ungulates were conducted by James Detling and students from Colorado State University (Peterson and others, 1997; Gerhardt and Detling, 1998; Fahnestock, 1998). Diets and habitat use of wild horses, bighorn sheep and mule deer were studied by Coates and Schemnitz (1989) and Kissell and others (1996). Both Coates and Schemnitz (1989) and Kissell and others (1996) reported a high degree of dietary overlap between wild horses and bighorn sheep. However, Kissell and others (1996) concluded that a high degree of spatial separation between wild horses and bighorn sheep, at least under the study conditions, precluded any significant negative competitive influences. The most important overlap of bighorn sheep and wild horses seems to be on winter range. Competition can be difficult to determine, since current conditions may not reveal competition that has already occurred. Managers remained concerned about the declining bighorn population for the following reasons:

Our objectives for the study were to:

  1. Evaluate current disease problems and mortality rates, including predation rates, in bighorn sheep through captures and monitoring of bighorn sheep.
  2. Determine winter spatial relations of wild horses and bighorn sheep through aerial surveys of winter range.
  3. Conduct habitat measurements to determine why bighorn sheep were not using what had been mapped with a GIS-based habitat model as suitable bighorn sheep habitat, and sample winter and summer consumption rates of key forage species to see if there were other factors precluding use of these areas by bighorn sheep.
  4. Compare winter lamb recruitment rates and total vegetation consumption rates on bighorn sheep winter use areas, with and without wild horses present.
  5. Complete year-round GIS-based distribution maps for wild horses and bighorn sheep in order to identify key areas of species overlap and key areas of species separation for potential habitat improvements.

NPS park staff asked USGS to answer the following questions: (a) how large is the population?; (b) how many rams are in the population?; (c) in addition to low lamb recruitment, is mortality or dispersal of adults likely contributing to the decline?; and (d) is trophy hunting of rams contributing to the decline?

Publication type Report
Title Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) survivorship and habitat studies in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and surrounding lands, Wyoming and Montana, 2000–2003
Year Published 2004
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description 34 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 3
Last page 36
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