The Cost of a Comeback

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This article by Julia Rosen first appeared in the May 29, 2017 issue of High Country News with the title “The cost of a comeback.”

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The cost of the bighorn comeback

In California’s Eastern Sierra, bringing back bighorn has meant killing more mountain lions.

Standing in the middle of an icy trail on a bright December day, Tom Stephenson sweeps an H-shaped antenna overhead, searching for something he already knows is there. Through the blizzard of static on his handheld speaker, faint beeps confirm that a herd of bighorn sheep wearing telemetry collars hides somewhere in this valley on the eastern edge of California’s Sierra Nevada. But spotting the buff-colored ungulates can be tricky.

“There’s an element of luck to it,” says Stephenson, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. A rangy man with graying blond hair, he squints through binoculars at a craggy slope draped in morning shadows and snow. It’s a challenging backdrop even for Stephenson, who leads the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program.

Like other bighorn populations across the West, Sierra bighorn were nearly wiped out after European settlers arrived in California, bringing domestic sheep that introduced virulent diseases. By the mid-1990s, scarcely more than 100 bighorn remained — just 10 percent of historic estimates. So the state launched the recovery program in a desperate bid to save this unique subspecies.

“There they are!” Stephenson says, handing me the binoculars and switching to a long scope. He counts 11 bighorn grazing at the base of a cliff — six ewes, two rams and three stub-horned lambs. By 2016, thanks to the efforts of Stephenson’s team and a run of favorable weather, the bighorn population had soared to roughly 600 animals living in 14 herds scattered across the range.

The bighorn’s recovery has been a remarkable success, but it’s come at a price. Ranchers in the Eastern Sierra have lost access to certain pastures, as managers cleared away domestic sheep to prevent another disease outbreak. Two dozen mountain lions lost their lives, too.

Healthy bighorn populations can handle natural levels of predation from mountain lions, their primary predator. But studies show that cougars can decimate struggling herds, like those in the Sierra. Managers often target the big cats when vulnerable bighorn populations can no longer withstand even minor losses.

Most scientists agree that predator control — often a sterile euphemism for killing lions — is sometimes necessary to protect endangered species. But lion advocates object when such measures take an unnecessary toll or drag on for too long. At best, they say, removing predators is a temporary stopgap. “The more complex discussion is, how do you get to this place in the first place,” says Mark Elbroch, the lead puma scientist at Panthera, a wildcat conservation organization. “Why is it even on the table?”

The answer, at least in the Sierra Nevada, is sadly familiar: Centuries of human impacts have left no simple solutions to ensure the sheep’s recovery. Those who want to see bighorn and big cats coexist again must reckon with the legacies of past wrongs while trying not to commit new ones — no easy task.

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Comments about this article

Ricardo Small Subscriber
May 29, 2017 08:36 AM
The bighorn re-introduction project in Arizona's Catalina Mtns did NOT appease everyone. Far from it. It is a mistake to write: "The resulting deal appeased everyone ..." The Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club did not approve of the project and a local group, Friends of Wild Animals, vehemently opposed killing mountain lions. The impetus for the Catalina Bighorn Project was Brian Dolan's group of hunters, the Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, which has members on the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. The little group of advisers that include the Wilderness Society, now a failed environmental group, and the Center for Biological Diversity, held secret meetings while using tax dollars to pay for government personnel involved in the bighorn relocation project. Most importantly, the habitat of the Catalina Mtns is NOT as great as this article reports. In fact, the vast majority of the habitat is rated poor to fair by a habitat quality map. The present bighorn population estimate of 85 head is actually five less than the 90 sheep relocated from established home ranges in western Arizona. There is a net loss in the number of desert bighorn sheep in Arizona as a result of the relocation project. It is highly unlikely that there will be a herd established in the Catalinas, because the human disturbance is too great for long term survival of bighorns in the poor to fair habitat. Tucson's human population is over a million people, many of whom go into the bighorn habitat in large numbers. Julia Rosen missed a LOT of information about the Arizona project and made misleading statements.
Lynn Cullens Subscriber
May 29, 2017 03:53 PM
The Mountain Lion Foundation has struggled with the issues surrounding Sierra Nevada Bighorn for years. It is sad that it must come to a decision to kill one species in order to save another. The greatest threats to bighorns are loss of habitat and nutritious forage, exposure to diseases carried by domestic sheep, and now climate change. When agencies in other states kill predators to improve flocks, while still allowing hunting the Bighorns or permitting nearby domestic sheep operations that threaten disease, we call foul.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife seems to have come to a place where killing lions is an absolute last resort - a desperate measure - and the agency appears to regret the loss of the lions and to seek scientific explanations that might offer alternatives whenever possible. We applaud this decade-long change in attitude and hope that the depth of the relationships between lions and bighorns can be more fully studied and understood in that context, so that lions - that also experience the challenges of drought and severe winters - may coexist without intervention.

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