The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reintroduces bighorn sheep on tribal lands

For the first time in roughly 100 years, the species returns to historic habitat.

 

California bighorn sheep arrive before being transported to Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe land that was once a part of the sheep’s historic habitat.

The day began early for the crew of scientists, state and tribal officials — long before the sun rose across the snow-covered sagebrush. “How many are you going to give us?” asked Alan Mandell, vice chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “Twenty to 25,” said a biologist, rubbing his palms together in the cold. “That’s a great start,” Mandell said, smiling.

All fell silent as a helicopter approached from the horizon above Nevada’s snowy Sheep Creek Range. “We have four,” crackled a voice over the radio. In the distance, the payload dangled in slings from the chopper’s haul: California bighorn sheep, carefully blindfolded.  Emily Hagler, biologist and wetlands environmental specialist for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, stood back and watched the first one touch down in a swirl of snow. Teams rushed to the site, weighed the bighorns and placed them on tables for medical examinations.

It’s finally happening, Hagler thought, eyeing the bighorns. After decades of on-and-off negotiations between state and tribal agencies and time spent seeking grant funding as well as gathering tribal council and community support, the bighorns were coming home.

“This is just the next step in restoring another native species that has been lost.”

“We lost almost our entire fisheries that we’ve been working decades to recover,” said Hagler. “This is just the next step in restoring another native species that has been lost.”

For the first time in roughly a hundred years, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe will have a flock of bighorn sheep on tribal land that was once a part of the sheep’s historic habitat. Not only will the effort help restore the species; it will also renew hunting and tanning traditions and support ceremonial uses — practices disrupted as the sheep population declined. The bighorns will be closely monitored for nearly three years to create a tailored conservation plan. “We won’t know what the herd will need to thrive until they’re on the landscape,” said Hagler. Restoring an animal to its native habitat is a time-consuming and expensive task. It’s also uncertain at times;  sheep don’t always survive the stress of capture, and they are lethally susceptible to local livestock diseases. And after release, they’re on their own.

Once the sheep are captured, veterinarians collect blood samples, make age estimations, take nasal and throat swabs, and measure horns and necks for radio-collar fitting. Stressed-out bighorns that begin to overheat are wrapped in cold wet towels, packed in snow and given oxygen.

Veterinarians evaluate a bighorn sheep to ensure it is healthy and not overly-stressed.

Over the last few decades, the Pyramid Lake Paiute’s natural resources department has been focused on recovering its fisheries in Pyramid Lake, home to two imperiled fish species. These efforts have taken a lot of resources and prevented tribal partnerships with the state during earlier bighorn reintroduction efforts. The endangered cui-ui, from which the tribe gets its name (Cui ui Ticutta, meaning  “Cui-ui Eaters”), began to decline in the 1930s due to unrestricted water diversion and drought. Today, however, the population is increasing, thanks to tribal management and water regulation. The cui-ui, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes as a “large robust sucker,” weighs nearly 8 pounds and can live for over 40 years. A rare fish with a royal blue tailfin, it can only be found in Pyramid Lake. The tribe also manages the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, which can only be found in a few lakes and streams in mid-eastern California and central Nevada. The Lahontan cutthroat lives between 5 and 15 years, but what it lacks in lifespan it makes up in mass, weighing up to 40 pounds. Now, thanks to a partnership with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the bighorn sheep has joined the tribe’s conservation roster after decades of colonization, commercial hunting, urbanization and livestock overwhelmed the state’s bighorns.

“In terms of sovereignty, we could be pushing more of a Native management style that’s based in traditional management practices,” said Marissa Weaselboy, a citizen of the Yomba Shoshone Tribe and environmental specialist for Pyramid Lake. “Maybe some of it could be like tending areas that they could frequent, so they could carry seeds for replanting. I’m hoping how they work with the environment is they help with revegetation.”

Both written and archaeological records, based on bones and petroglyphs, reveal that bighorn sheep once thrived across Nevada. Revered as a “trailblazer” and “one of Nevada’s greatest heroes,” at least by some state officials and archaeologists, John Charles Frémont (1813-1890) carried out orders from the War Department to survey land across the West to further U.S. expansion efforts, including the “unknown land” that would later become Nevada. On one of these trips, he chronicled the bighorns that he saw, in writings that would later help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identify the animal’s historic habitat. “We saw herds of mountain sheep, and encamped on a little stream at the mouth of the defile, about a mile from the margin of the water, to which we hurried down immediately,” Frémont wrote. The Frémont name is found everywhere in the West, from a casino-lit street in Las Vegas to the names of many plant species, and from the Fremont-Winema National Forest in California to the town where my mother grew up in the Bay Area.

A crowd gathers on the shore of Pyramid Lake to witness the release of 22 bighorn sheep onto Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe land.

At noon, another gust of snow from the chopper signaled the arrival of the last five bighorns. The sheep-count capped at 22, with the rest packed in two Department of Wildlife stock trailers just beyond the veterinarian medic stations. With all the bighorns accounted for, the caravan set off for Lake Range, toward the eastern shore of Pyramid Lake, land normally off-limits to non-tribal members.

The sun set on the west side of Pyramid Lake. Its waters were aquamarine. Clouds circled the mountains. Two stock trailers rumbled down the dusty road. Participants were told by the state scientists to form a “V” around the trailer’s gate to direct the bighorns into the mountains.

In a matter of seconds, the ewe flock was gone, darting up a rocky slope to settle somewhere in the dark. Then, whoosh, a second flock of rams charged out of the gate. In 10 years, Emily Hagler hopes the population will be sustainable, with bighorns born from the flock and even more reintroduced from across the state.

“I just see herds of bighorn sheep all over the reservation in 20 years,” she said.

Kalen Goodluck is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -