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
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.