When discussing issues impacting bighorn sheep in the United States, three main issues dominate the conversation.
Domestic Sheep Disease Transference
And those should be the three primary concerns but there is a growing threat in the Western United States.
Originally brought over by Spanish explorers in the 1500s, feral hogs have taken a foothold in 31 states and there is no question they will eventually move into all of the Lower 48.
According to an article published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), feral hogs are a major threat to wildlife through water pollution.
“Water polluted from feral swine wallowing can be contaminated with parasites and bacteria such as giardia, salmonella, and pathogenic E. coli that could be transmitted to humans and other animals. This can happen when feral swine use an agricultural water source, such as an irrigation pond…”
They noted since hogs lack sweat glands, wallowing in mud and water is an instinctual behavior necessary for them to maintain a healthy body temperature.
“Unfortunately this behavior has cascading impacts, not only to water quality in individual streams, ponds, and wetlands, but to entire watersheds and ecosystems.”
Looking at a current distribution map, it is easy to see hogs are already established in the entirety of desert bighorn habitat in Texas and California and are also growing in numbers in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon.
In drought years in particular hogs will impact ponds, stock tanks, streams and guzzlers. These of course are crucial to bighorns and other wildlife.
Feral hogs can also carry pseudorabies.
According to USDA officials, pseudorabies is a disease of swine that can also affect cattle, dogs, cats, sheep, and goats.
“Pseudorabies virus (PRV) is a contagious herpesvirus that causes reproductive problems, (abortion, stillbirths), respiratory problems and occasional deaths in breeding and finishing hogs. Infected newborn pigs may exhibit central nervous system clinical signs.”
It is typically spread through direct contact but there are other ways transmission can occur.
“If present on inanimate objects, such as boots, clothing, feed, trucks, and equipment, the virus can also spread from herd to herd and farm to farm.”
Could hogs transfer PRV to domestic sheep that in turn transfer to bighorns?
And that’s a frightening prospect for animals already facing great challenges.
Another potential threat from hogs is predation.
According to officials with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, “wild hogs may prey on fawns, young lambs, and kid goats.”
There is no question hogs could prey on bighorn lambs, especially desert bighorn lambs in the early days of their life. I have found no concrete evidence of hog/wild sheep predation but it remains a possibility.
I will dig more into hog predation on other ungulates in another post but for now just consider what has been presented here.
No one thought 30 years ago feral hogs would now be hunted in New Jersey and more hogs would be killed by hunters in Texas than whitetails.
Could a growing population of hogs in the western United States put more stress on bighorn populations?
I believe it is a possibility, especially the water pollution and disease aspects.
There’s something about being in the mountains that cleanses the soul.
No matter what kind of baggage we bring from our day to day lives, being in the mountains brings peace.
And on the flip-side, encountering wildlife in the mountains can be the most exhiirating thing a person can experience.
As I type this from the deck of a cabin I’ll use as base camp for a few days, I’m still a bit jittery (in a good way). It’s from the adrenaline-infused meeting I had with a big bull elk and my camera.
This big boy had a bunch of cows cornered in a small lake and he let a younger bull know he wasn’t getting any play.
I was told the rut was over here but you couldn’t tell by today’s action. There was bugling, attempted mating and some straight up fighting.
Seeing this from the perspective of a bowhunter, it would have been about trying to get in and make a clean, ethical shot to score on some incredible, heart-healthy venison.
But with my photographer cap on, it was about capturing the vibe of what was going on. I think I did in a couple of shots.
Elk are truly a national treasure and to see them in such numbers and to get so close was an awesome experience. I’ve seen and photographed plenty of elk in the past but there was something special about this bull.
He had attitude and capturing that with my camera was a true blessing.
I have never done drugs of any kind but today I got high here in the Rocky Mountains.
The bugle of the elk and the stunning scenery took me to a higher place that will undoubtedly beckon me to return again and again.
The tracks were so fresh I expected to see their maker appear at any second.
Nearly as wide as my two hands combined and nearly as long as my foot there was no doubt these were left by a very large black bear.
I kept my camera ready as any encounter would be up close and personal.
In a remote area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California, I was at a stretch of river where huge boulders lined the shores, creating a rugged maze.
It was wall to wall granite with the ground being a mix of smaller rock and sand.
The tracks that ended at a huge flat outcropping led me close to the river. The view was stunning and I took time to savor the moment but my quarry remained elusive.
An hour later I found myself a few hundred yards above this location.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught slight movement.
Through the binoculars what looked at first like a bush turned out to be a black bear standing as if something had caught its attention too.
I am not sure if it was the same bear whose tracks I had followed.
Perhaps it had caught scent I left behind but one thing is for sure. The chill that ran down my spine at that moment reminded me of why I pursue wildlife and on this occasion wildlife might have very well been pursuing me.
After all, I was in this majestic animal’s domain.
Ursus americanus is the most abundant bear on the planet with an estimated 600,000 scattered throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. They are a true wildlife conservation success story but not all is well.
Parts of their historic range are devoid of bear while some others are starting to see the first sign in decades.
My home state of Texas is a prime example.
Ursula americanus eremicus, the Mexican black bear, is protected from harvest in Mexico and over the last two decades they have been spilling into Texas from the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains.
Most of the population is centered around Big Bend National Park but there are verified bear sightings and road kills near Alpine and also as far east as Kerr County.
In fact, bear sightings in the Texas Hill Country have increased dramatically in recent years. One even paid fisheries biologists at the Heart of the Hills Hatchery near Ingram a visit-an area that hasn’t regularly had bear sightings in well over 100 years.