Big(horn) deal

Researcher helps preserve Hells Canyon's wild sheep

Posted: Friday, November 01, 2002

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- A herd of 18 bighorn sheep wanders along the banks of the Snake River in Hells Canyon, moseying from rock to rock, drinking from the river, and chewing on grass.

Five rams, with massive horns curling over the sides of their heads, are in the herd.

What a sight.

A lamb bounds playfully but cautiously between the adult animals.

The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are so close you can hear them breathing and chewing. The muscles in their legs are as lean and powerful as those of marathon runners from scaling 1,000-foot canyon walls.

It is better than any nature television program. It's real life an October day in one of the most remote areas of Idaho. Fall is an excellent time to see the bighorn rams in the deep river gorge that separates Idaho from Oregon. The rams are congregating just before the rut and are easier to see as they come down closer to the river.


A herd of bighorn sheep are shown Oct. 10, 2002, below Pittsburgh Landing in Hells Canyon, Idaho, on the Snake River. The herd comes down from the high cliffs to drink from the river.

AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Katherine Jones

Canyon travelers, whether backpacking, rafting or riding in a jet boat, are seeing more bighorn sheep in the canyon because of reintroduction of the species more than 30 years ago, additional transplants and a constant monitoring of the herds.

This kind of scrutiny is an expression of the way the sheep have been capturing the imagination of Western peoples for thousands of years.

The sheep have been the subject of American Indian rock art in the canyon and today can be seen in numerous photos and pieces of art. They are also the stars of many wildlife-watching excursions.

''There is a connection with these animals,'' says Frances Cassirer, 43, an Idaho Fish and Game research biologist who has been studying the wild sheep for six years.

Cassirer is conducting a 10-year study on the wild sheep of Hells Canyon to discover why they are so susceptible to disease. The 11-year-employee of Fish and Game is doing the project as part of her doctoral studies. The study is helping bring the bighorns in Hells Canyon back from extinction because Cassirer and her assistant are identifying successful herds in the canyon.

Cassirer steers a jet boat downstream from Pittsburgh Landing. As she rounds a bend, her wildlife research assistant, who is listening to radio signals, yells above the roar of the jet engines and crashing waves.

''Frances, 1192 came in great for a second. Is that one on top?'' Renan Yanish asks.

Cassirer stops the jet boat, and they scan the green and brown canyon ridges for signs of wild sheep.

A few white rumps stand out against the gray canyon walls.

''There they are,'' Cassirer says. A herd of wild sheep is about 1,000 feet above the river.

Cassirer, who has been a wildlife biologist for 20 years, and Yanish start counting and taking notes.

''They'll come down to water. Let's wait,'' Cassirer says as she lands the jet boat on the opposite side of the river.

Some of the wild sheep in Hells Canyon have radio collars so they can be tracked. The animals are like individual radio stations, each giving off a signal on a certain frequency. Cassirer knows each frequency as if they are her children.

Other jet boats pass, their passengers looking at the wild sheep.

It wasn't always so. Wild sheep disappeared from Hells Canyon by the 1940s as a result of disease, overhunting and competition with domestic sheep for forage.

Idaho was home to about 100,000 bighorn sheep in the early 1800s. There are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 today.

Bighorn numbers started to decline as soon as the state began to be settled. They were easy to hunt and provided food for early miners and settlers. And they were -- and still are -- susceptible to diseases like scabies and pasturella, which are transmitted from domestic sheep. As homesteaders brought in more domestic sheep, the bighorns became sick and died.

''The bottom line is there is no danger to domestic sheep from wild sheep,'' Cassirer says. ''It's only one way.''

The main solution now is to keep bighorns and domestic sheep separated. Researchers also are studying nutrition, weather, population densities and the habits and migration of wild sheep. They're also analyzing scat for nutrition and are examining carcasses at labs to determine how they died. And they're looking closely at bacteria and the potential for vaccines.

''We haven't come up with anything,'' she said. ''But technology keeps improving, and we hope to take advantage of it and apply it to bighorns.''

Cassirer sees hope in every lamb that is born and every ewe and ram that climbs the canyon walls.

The wild sheep were reintroduced to Hells Canyon for the first time in 1971 with bighorns brought in from Alberta.

In the following decades, more wild sheep were brought in from Alberta, Brit-ish Columbia, Montana, Colorado, Ore-gon, Wyoming and other parts of Idaho.

Hells Canyon's herd now numbers about 850, down from about 1,000 in the mid-'90s. Disaster struck during the winter of 1995 and 1996. Pasturella took its toll and claimed 300 animals, reducing the herd to about 700.

But hope continues. The herds are growing about 7 percent a year. This isn't the 15 percent a year researchers like to see in a healthy herd, but it's still growth. The reason for the stunted growth? Lambs aren't surviving into adulthood, despite the fact that the Hells Canyon area can support thousands of wild sheep, Cassirer says.

In the last three years in one herd, 65 of the 80 lambs born died from pneumonia.

Cassirer has heard the coughing of young lambs too many times. She has carried dead lambs off the mountainsides too many times.

Cassirer's study is being supported by the wildlife agencies of the states of Idaho, Washington and Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and an assortment of hunter and wildlife groups, including the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, Oregon Hunters Association and the Turner Foundation.

The annual budget is around $200,000, of which some funds come from the auction of a bighorn sheep hunting tag. That tag has brought in as much as $80,000 for research. Support continues because bighorn sheep are prized by hunters, photographers and wildlife watchers.

''Wild sheep have a lot of people that like them,'' she says, and that's important to the future of the animals.

Suddenly a tour jet boat comes around the bend in the river. The pilot spots the herd of bighorns and passengers start clicking photos.

Cassirer is right.


Frances Cassirer, 43, an Idaho Fish and Game research biologist who has been studying Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep for six years, collects scat samples downstream of Pittsburgh Landing on the Idaho side, above the Snake River, to determine how nutrition affects the herds' health, Oct. 10, 2002. She is six years through a 10-year project to restore bighorn populations in Hells Canyon. "We owe it to the sheep," she says.

AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Katherine Jones

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