Keeping Sheep On the Mountain

“To put and keep wild sheep on the mountain”

That’s the mission statement of The Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) and although it is a big, inspiring statement, it is also nuanced.

For those into wild sheep, visions of releasing bighorns from areas of abundance to locations that need population boosts immediately come to mind.

Translocation of sheep after all is the heart of bighorn management.

But it’s not the hardest part.

Keeping those sheep on the mountain is the greatest challenge in a world where things are changing rapidly and old threats still exist.

“Disease is still our number one threat,” said Gray Thorn, WSF President & CEO.

“And that’s one of the primary things we will be addressing during our Chapter and Affiliate Summit in Idaho.”

Thornton told me that when I visited WSF headquarters in Bozeman last week.

The author and WSF President & CEO Gray Thornton in front of the replica of the world record Rocky Mountain Bighorn at WSF headquarters. The horns are from a replica taken from a mold of the original horns and the hide is from another sheep legally acquired from a taxidermist.

As a WSF member and a wildlife journalist who closely follows all things sheep, it was great to visit the headquarters.

It’s a beautiful building and of course filled with wild sheep taxidermy including a replica of the world record Rocky Mountain bighorn but it’s certainly not massive.

For an organization that puts millions of dollars on the ground for sheep each year, one might expect huge offices with many employees but that’s not the case.

It’s a handful of people working extremely hard to make an impactful organization even moreso.

The Wild Sheep Foundation headquarters in Bozeman, MT. (Photo by Chester Moore)

“The COVID situation presented many challenges for us as it did for everyone else but we quickly pivoted making the best use of technolgoy and were able to make strides forward,” Thornton said.

This included a virtual expo that saw membership numbers increase and fundaising records fall.

In all, $4,488,500 was raised in three evening auctions from conservation permits according to WSF officials.

A Rocky Mountain bighorn makes its way up a 12 foot rock wall near Estes Park, Colorado with one jump. (Photo by Chester Moore)

“Depending on the permit, eighty-five to one hundred percent of these funds are directed to these fish and wildlife agencies for wild sheep conservation, management, and enhancement programs.”

According to the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies 74 percent of all agency wild sheep conservation funding comes from an auction or raffle conservation permit.

An example of those funds being used for the group’s mission statement came with a 2021 reintroduction of bighorns into Montana’s Tendoy Mountains.

Translocation of sheep has allowed bighorns to be one of North America’s great comeback stories. This desert bighorn is about to be released at Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Texas after being captured at Elephant Mountain WMA. (Photo by Chester Moore)

The sheep were driven overnight to Dell, MT, where they were released at dawn the next morning into the Tendoy Mountain Range according to WSF Communication & Marketing Director Keith Balfourd.

Additionally, efforts have also went toward keeping sheep on the mountain this year with a collaborative water project with the Texas Bighorn Society for desert bighorns and weighing in on domestic sheep grazing policy on public land.

The aforementioned disease issue comes directly from domestic sheep and goats.

There’s something about wild sheep that gets to a person when encountering them.

The author photographed this desert bighorn in Nevada in 2020. He is on a quest to photograph wild sheep in all states and territories by 2029.

Whether it’s drawing a dream tag to hunt Stone Sheep in British Columbia or photographing them across various states as I am doing, these animals are truly inspiring.

And it’s good to know there are people like WSF and it’s chapters and affiliates working hard to make sure these great animals have a place on the mountain today and in the future.

Visit the Wild Sheep Foundation’s website to learn more.

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Chester Moore

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