Bighorns deserve better

 

I recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service, with many years as the lead wildlife biologist on the Rio Grande National Forest. I worked extensively with bighorn sheep issues in southwest Colorado, including some of the herds mentioned in HCN’s article, which also share our landscape (“The Big Threat to Bighorns,” HCN, 9/3/18). It is widely recognized that the introduction of diseases continues to be the primary threat to many bighorn sheep herds in Colorado. However, applying known science that addresses this issue has been challenging. In my experience, information has been intentionally manipulated or cherry-picked to portray a desired conclusion or outcome. The article is therefore timely in highlighting a story that applies throughout southwest Colorado.

Threats occur on both sides of the Continental Divide, where many herds function as interconnected populations. Multiple landownerships are involved, including individual Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management units that may not evaluate threats in a consistent manner. While improvements have been made by vacating or adjusting allotment boundaries, high-risk areas remain, due to both species grazing in close proximity and/or a failure to address potential bighorn sheep forays. This risk is further complicated by trailing and the fact that stray domestic sheep are a common occurrence. It is therefore difficult to achieve the significant linear distances needed to achieve effective separation.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are local icons of the wild that contribute greatly to the economic, social and aesthetic values of Colorado. Appropriately addressing their long-term persistence will require a renewed commitment to scientific integrity, transparency, inclusion of key biologists and stakeholders, and an awareness of the greater connected landscape of southwest Colorado.

Randal W. Ghormley
Del Norte, Colorado

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