Restoration of bighorn sheep metapopulations in and near 15 national parks: Conservation of a severely fragmented species; Volume I, Planning, problem definition, findings, and restoration

Open-File Report 99-102
By:  and 



Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) were historically a ubiquitous species. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, they were seemingly widespread in nearly all steep habitats in the mountains, foothills, river breaks, and prairie badlands of the western United States. However, since catastrophic declines in the late 1800s and early 1900s, most extant populations have existed as small, isolated groups in a highly fragmented distribution. Stochastic events such as seasonal weather change or population fluctuations render these small populations more prone to extirpation than larger populations. 

Three different subspecies of bighorn sheep were eliminated from 14 of 18 National Park System (NPS) units in the 6-state Intermountain Region of the western United States (Singer 1994). In 1990, when this restoration was initiated, only 4 (18%) of 22 discrete park populations or metapopulations were considered large enough (300-500 animals) to be secure for long-term management. Five (23%) other populations numbered 100-299 animals and 3 (14%) populations numbered 75-99 animals. But, the remaining 10 populations (45%) were either extirpated (n = 2), remnant populations (n = 5, populations of 7-10 animals), or vulnerable to extirpation (n = 3, populations of less than 50 animals). Restoration prior to 1991-96 was largely completed in one NPS unit, but was incomplete in the remaining units. Most bighorn sheep are not federally listed as endangered or threatened species, although the California peninsular population of desert bighorn sheep was recently listed as endangered. The bighorn sheep is a rare or uncommon species that is declining in many parts of its range but is abundant in other areas and still relatively easy to study and manage. The Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, directed the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1993 (when this agency was still the National Biological Service) to research and recover species that were declining to avoid expensive and controversial federal listing. Because the capture and moving of the species are still relatively uncomplicated and because some source stocks are available, aggressive restoration in 15 National Park System units in the former Rocky Mountain Region was recommended in 1990. 

This report details the 7-year restoration of bighorn sheep to all currently suitable historic habitats in the national parks of the former Rocky Mountain Region (now the Intermountain and Midwest regions of the National Park Service). The purpose of the first phase of the restoration during 1991-93 was to conduct research and population surveys and to formulate the restoration plans. The purpose of the second phase of the initiative during 1994-97 was to conduct GIS-based habitat and biological assessments of prospective restoration sites, write restoration plans, and restore and monitor the released bighorn sheep.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Restoration of bighorn sheep metapopulations in and near 15 national parks: Conservation of a severely fragmented species; Volume I, Planning, problem definition, findings, and restoration
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 99-102
DOI 10.3133/ofr99102
Year Published 1999
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description x, 96 p.
Country United States
State Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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