“Social-distancing” is a term most hope disappears from the lexicon soon. While the concept of keeping a safe distance during the COVID-19 pandemic is wisdom, losing the connection to others is challenging for humanity. For wild sheep, social-distancing is essential.
Domestic sheep and goats can transmit a form of pneumonia to bighorn and thinhorn sheep that is devastating to herds. It is so devastating that more than two million that existed at the time of Lewis & Clark’s expedition declined to around 25,000 by the early 1900s.
“Wildlife agencies and conservation groups have done a remarkable job of bringing them back to around the 150-175,000 range, but there is still a major problem with exposure to domestic sheep. Die-offs are occurring in pockets right now in states like Oregon and Utah,” said Chester Moore, an award-winning wildlife journalist and founder of Higher Calling Wildlife.
Higher Calling Wildlife seeks to raise awareness of mountain and forest wildlife conservation. It also mentors young people dealing with critical illness and traumatic loss to use media for conservation purposes.
One of those young people is Reannah Hollaway, who, through the program and the generosity of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, got to take part in a desert bighorn capture and relocation in 2019.
“I have cystic fibrosis, which affects the lungs, and have had to take special precautions during COVID-19. This gives me a unique understanding of the need for keeping wild sheep and domestic sheep apart. This kind of social-distancing can save bighorns,” she said.
Hollaway is a student at Texas Tech and studying to work in the field of wildlife management.
She chose this degree after a wildlife encounter through Higher Calling Wildlife’s mothership, Wild Wishes. This outreach grants wildlife encounters to young people with a critical illness or the loss of a parent or sibling.
To raise awareness of the need for sheep social distancing, Higher Calling WIldlife has begun the Sheep Scrapbook project, which seeks photos taken of wild sheep throughout North America.
“It’s our way to get people of all backgrounds to think about wild sheep, and the response has been tremendous,” Moore said.
“We’re hoping that when people focus their cameras on sheep, whether in one of our national parks or a hunting or fishing expedition, they can take time to realize these animals are facing a real problem with pneumonia. It’s time all of us who love wild sheep do more to support organizations and agencies searching for ways to keep wild sheep social-distanced from their domestic cousins.”
Having just watched an Arizona desert bighorn tag sell for $315,000, many other record tag bids and a week that took digital conservation communication to a new level, hope is alive and well.
That hope is that despite incredible setbacks due to COVID-19 that purpose and innovation can serve as a model for how future challenges can be met in a digital platform.
Everyone, myself included, hopes there will be an in-person “Sheep Show” in Reno, NV next year but if the pandemic continues, WSF officials have proven something impactful can still happen.
While total fundraising results were not available at the time of this writing, it should be anywhere between $4-5 million for the purpose of putting and keep wild sheep on the mountain.
And that of course is extremely important but there’s something else here.
And that is connection.
Among the numerous Zoom meetings, seminars, chat rooms and a very interactive vendor’s expo hall, sheep and mountain hunters from around the world were able to do business, get educated and make friends.
As a wildlife journalist, I spent much of my time communicating with state and regional biologists and various WSF chapters and state sheep conservation groups.
With the desire to bring the latest in sheep coverage here and via our other media platforms it was great to connect with the people on the ground doing the work and getting the inside story of what’s happneing with wild sheep in North America.
While we humans are battling a pandemic, wild sheep have been contending with one since domestic sheep were brought out West in the 1800s. Pneumonia that is minimally impactful to domestic sheep is devastating to wild sheep and has had an impact at some level everywhere from Canada to Mexico.
Conservationists like those involved with WSF and in the state, tribal, and provincial wildlife agencies have taken up the cause. Through population transplants, habitat and domestic sheep grazing management have brought the numbers up to about six-fold from their all-time low of 25,000.
But the problems that impacted sheep in the 1800s are still there and without conservation efforts of sheep hunters there would be little hope for these truly majestic animals.
It will be exciting to see the fundraising tally that will help so many states and provinces manage their wild sheep.
But in my opinion, an equally powerful victory was keeping the mountain hunting community connected and expanding the reach of WSF’s vision.
For the first time, the organization has topped 10,000 members, showing that “Sheep Week” was an experience that many found appealing.
That’s a very good thing because many challenges lie ahead for our beloved rams, ewes, and lambs.
“Sheep Week” shined the bright light of hope on them and set the proverbial bar for digital conservation interaction far above the tree line-into sheep country.
Pneumonia has spread into the Northeast Oregon bighorn sheep herd.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) have determined that the same strain of bacterial pneumonia that caused a die-off in the Lookout Mountain bighorn sheep herd in early 2020 has spread to the Burnt River herd.
ODFW officials reported this is the first-time bacterial pneumonia (caused by the organism Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae) has been identified in the Burnt River herd.
While I-84 normally separates the herds, bighorn sheep have been known to try to cross the highway. The Lookout Mountain herd ranges north of I-84 and west of Brownlee Reservoir, about 10 miles from the Burnt River Canyon herd, which is south of I-84.
Most concerning of all is that all lambs in the Lookout Mountain herd have died although adult mortality has tapered off.
This latest spread of pneumonia in wild sheep which is caused by exposure to domestic sheep is why I believe the least covered wildilfe tragedy (at the national level) in America is this pandemic.
And it is a pandemic-at least at the level of existing in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
It is what killed nearly two million wild sheep in the 1800s and continues today.
Local news coverage and hunting-based conservation groups are the only ones to touch this topic. When is the last time you saw something about this on a major wildlife television network?
Since wild sheep are managed by many different state, provincial and tribal agencies, few are aware of the myriad outbreaks of pneumonia happening right now.
Even in the Internet age, it can be challenging to know what’s happening in the Yukon for example when you live in Texas.
Alaska’s Dall sheep population has long been seen as bulletproof so to speak due to vast contiguous habitat and strict management.
In 2018 officials however, found bacterial pneumonia in four Dall sheep within a sample of 136 and in two of 39 mountain goats.
“The Dall sheep testing positive for M. ovi were all in Game Management Unit 13A; all were taken by hunters and appeared healthy. The mountain goats were live captured and released in Southeast and on the Kenai Peninsula and showed no sign of illness; only samples from goats on the Kenai tested positive,” according to officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“Our initial research has confirmed M. ovi in a small number of Dall sheep and mountain goats in relatively isolated areas of the state,” said Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Bruce Dale.
There have been no reported die-offs but the finding is concerning, especially when you look at what has happened recently in Oregon.
We will continue coverage of the sheep pandemic and also show recovery efforts that have taken sheep numbers far above where they were by their all-time low early in the 20th century.
It’s an important issue and in our corner of the world it will remain at the top of the priority list.
The Wild Sheep Foundation’s (WSF) annual “Sheep Show” in Reno, NV was cancelled due to COVID-19 like every other sporting expo this winter.
So, instead of throwing in the towel, they came up with what should be the most extensive and unique online wildlife event ever and they’re calling it “The Experience”.
For $50, attendees get access to a week’s worth of live seminars, giveaways, auctions and film premieres along with cutting-edge web-based interaction with vendors from the mountain hunting and conservation community.
Plus, the bulk of this will be archived and accessible for attendees into February.
I was fortunate to attend my first “Sheep Show” last year and was looking forward to the 2021 edition. As a wildlife journalist with a deep interest in wild sheep, I was blown away by the quality of the event, the funds WSF raised for conservation and the generosity of the people involved.
I’m signed up and ready for next week and recommend anyone interested in getting involved with wild sheep conservation do the same. The funds will benefit WSF’s goal of “Putting and Keeping Wild Sheep On the Mountain” and that alone makes it a worthy investment.
Wild sheep conservation awareness is a cornerstone of what we do here at Higher Calling Wildlife and we are excited to see what “Sheep Week” brings to the table.
Wild sheep are special creatures that need more help and attention than any other game animals in America, chiefly due to disastrous interactions with domestic sheep that carry a pathogen absolutely fatal to their wild cousins.
If you’d like to get involved helping the cause, give “Sheep Week” a try and consider joining The Wild Sheep Foundation.
I have no delusions that I will ever be able to afford to hunt a bighorn or thinhorn, unless I win an auction or drawing. But I have a profound love of these animals for their God-given beauty and majesty unparalleled in North American wildlife.
Sheep conservation is not just for the well-to-do. It’s for anyone who wants to step up to the plate and help. “Sheep Week” is a great starting point.
The impact of COVID-19, the coronavirus on humanity, is nothing short of historic.
While the death toll has not and hopefully will not reach the levels of the Spanish flu of 1918, the potential is there, and the grip it has on government, commerce, and private citizens is unprecedented.
That’s why I can’t help but make parallels between COVID-19 and the near-catastrophic decline of wild sheep of the 1800s.
When Lewis & Clark set out on their epic expedition, there were around two million wild sheep in North America. By 1900, there were fewer than 25,000 according to some estimates.
And while it would be easy to blame it on unregulated hunting and market killing which no doubt had some impact, by far the biggest killer was pneumonia.
Coming from domestic sheep, it hit wild herds as they co-mingled in the valleys and mountains during the westward expansion of European settlement. Millions of sheep died, and if it were not for conscientious hunters and fish and game departments around the nation, there would likely be no wild sheep left today.
Listen to Chester Moore discuss this issue and give some inspiration on wild sheep conservation at his new podcast “Higher Calling”.
It’s a story few have heard outside of wild sheep hunting and biologist circles, but now is the time.
The decline of wild sheep is second only to the government-sponsored bison slaughter in the depth of impact on a species in North America.
Humans are now quarantined, and in effect, bighorns are in many areas.
In 2016, Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) officials killed six bighorns because backpackers saw them co-mingling with domestic sheep. The bacterial form of pneumonia can be brought back to the herd and transmitted to lambs.
“When you have the lambs dying, it’s hard to build a population,” said CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski in The Durango Herald.
“As wildlife managers, we look at populations, not individual animals. In this case, we know an individual animal could spread the disease to the larger herd, and then we have a bigger problem.”
This is not an uncommon practice in wild sheep management.
While translocations, strict herd management, and grazing restrictions have brought sheep numbers continent-wide into the 150-175,000 range, pneumonia is still the most significant threat. Still, there are no specials on Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild or any other mainstream media outlets. This pandemic has been going on with wild sheep for 150 years, and only the hunting community, fish and game agencies, and biologists seem to care.
The focus should now be on saving people and the economies of the world, but there is space to teach a valuable lesson on wildlife conservation. There has never been a point in recent history where this particular story of wild sheep has such a great chance to touch the hearts of millions of wildlife enthusiasts.
During the downtime from work and school, people are looking for things to occupy their time and inspired, informative media on some of the beautiful animals in North America can help fill some of that void.
That is what this post is all about. I’m doing my best to let people know that when the dust settles on COVID-19 (and me and my family are praying daily that will happen soon), sheep will still have their own pandemic to face.
Concerned conservationists have done a remarkable job building herds throughout North America, but these conservationists are aging quickly, and new blood needs to step up to the plate.
Maybe something good that can come out of this tragedy is that some young person is motivated to get involved with sheep conservation. Perhaps being isolated, afraid of mingling with others and under the potential threat of death itself because of an unseen force will inspire action.
Sheep, of course, have no way to conceptualize these things, but they don’t need to when caring conservationists are in place in fish and game departments, conservation groups, and halls of the legislature.
COVID-19 may be momentarily stealing our freedoms, but it can’t rob the wild and enduring spirit of those thoughtful enough to make a bold stand for bighorns and their thinhorn cousins.
That force is as majestic as the sheep themselves.
A desert bighorn ram crossed the steep, rocky opening with incredible ease.
I had struggled to quietly get within photo range without slipping and falling to my death for longer than I would like to admit. The ram, however, crossed through a much more treacherous spot with impunity-in seconds.
Seeing their ability to survive and thrive in such habitat is one of the things that draws men to seek out wild sheep-whether with a camera, rifle or bow and arrow.
And Jan. 15-17, thousands of sheep enthusiasts gathered in Reno, NV. at the annual Sheep Show hosted by The Wild Sheep Foundation.
It was my first time attending and I came both as a fan of wild sheep and a wildlife journalist wanting to get the story on what makes this group of people tick.
The fan was satisfied as soon as I walked through the doors of the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
Anyone into wild sheep would be impressed with incredible wild sheep taxidermy displays and hundreds of booths ranging from outfitters specializing in argali hunts in Tajikistan to Colorado’s grass-roots Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society.
A melanistic desert bighorn taken in Mexico was of particular interest as well as a mountain-style display of wild sheep and goats from Asia.
Sheep hunting is not for the out of shape was evidenced by conversations with outfitters who start some of their hunts at upwards of 12,000 feet.
And it’s not for the out of work either.
While lottery-style draw permits gives the working-class man access to sheep hunting, much of it is a wealthy man’s game.
But that has come as a benefit to wild sheep.
Whereas whitetail deer can pay for themselves through standard hunting licenses fees due to their huge distribution and strong populations, sheep can’t survive through that model.
Auctioning off a portion of tags to wealthy hunters at banquets like those held at the Sheep Show funds a huge part of wild sheep conservation efforts. And whereas whitetail need studying and observation, sheep need an entirely different level of management.
Moving sheep from areas with high population densities to low and making sure they do not co-mingle with domestic sheep that can pass on deadly pneumonia is incredibly expensive.
Without groups like The Wild Sheep Foundation which according to president Gray Thornton spent more than $6 million on conservation efforts in 2019 along with regional groups like the Texas Bighorn Society and Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation, sheep would be in real trouble.
Tags at these auctions regularly go more than $100,000 and some coveted tags like those for Montana’s giant rams have fetched more than $400,000.
The hunters with that kind of coin could easily hunt big rams with outfitters who have tags and spend less. But these hunters believe in conservation and don’t mind spending to make it happen.
The most impressive part of the event came at the beer reception for the Less Than One Club. Its a subgroup of The Wild Sheep Foundation for members who have never taken a wild sheep.
More than 2,000 people attended this year’s event, shattering the previous record and showing an incredible diversity of people.
I’m a member and despite having traveled and written all over North America have never taken a sheep.
Neither had the lifelong sheep biologist who I sat with or the 28-year-old girl I met who dreamed of sheep hunting. Virtually very income level, background, ethnicity and state in the union was represented and everyone was truly excited.
And although I don’t have official demographics, I estimate a third of that room was 35 years and younger and half under 45. In the hunting world those are impressive numbers and they show hope for the future of wild sheep.
Enthusiasm for these great animals is not limited by age, income bracket or location. It’s universal to those who have somehow found a fascination with wild sheep.
Three Dall sheep hunts were given away that night in draws that had everyone on their edge of their seats. Asian ibex hunts were given away for the international component of this unique club that everyone in the room inherently wants to be disqualified from.
The day after the show, I drove seven-hour span from Reno to Las Vegas to attend the SHOT Show on behalf of Texas Fish & Game magazine. It was an incredible drive through stunning country with frequent “Bighorn Crossing” signs.
I had learned about a tract of public land with a good sheep population and hoped I would be able to photograph my first sheep in Nevada and by God’s grace and good information there was the sheep at the beginning of this story.
I could not help but think back to the Sheep Show and wonder if this beautiful, young ram would even be here without the love of those in the sheep-hunting community.
Just as I decided to head back down as not to spook the ram, he made his way down toward me.
He stopped about 75 yards away, highlighted perfectly by the brilliant desert sun and essentially posed while looking right at me. I could now make out a tag in his ear with a very easily identifiable number.
This ram had at some point been captured, documented and maybe even moved from another area to here.
That kind of management doesn’t come cheap and it does not come without people who believe in wild sheep management like the Nevada Department of Wildlife and The Wild Sheep Foundation.
The beautiful creature turned and headed back up the slope, this time journeying to the peak and over.
I left Nevada with great hope for the future of sheep and sheep hunting thanks to the Sheep Show and a deeper curiosity about Nevada and it’s three varieties of wild sheep.
The desert bighorn sheep is now officially a celebrity in Texas.
A new conservation license plate features a stunning bighorn image and those who purchase them for $30 get the satisfaction of knowing $22 goes directly to sheep conservation efforts of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD).
The new plate design is a first for TPWD.
“Our longtime plate artist, Clemente Guzman, retired, so we decided to use a photograph of a majestic Bighorn Sheep proudly looking into the desert—and perhaps its future,” said Janis Johnson with the TPWD Conservation License Plate program.
“We conducted an online survey with thousands of hunters and conservationists and had them rank several designs for a Bighorn Sheep plate and a Pronghorn plate. The Bighorn Sheep was the overwhelming favorite.”
Diehard hunters and wildlife enthusiasts know bighorns are native to Texas. The mainstream of those user groups however have no idea about Texas rich bighorn legacy and the amazing conservation efforts it took to get them back on the mountains of the Trans-Pecos.
Wild sheep have been a source of interest to me since I clipped out a statistics chart from a TPWD magazine during my childhood and put it in my dream hunt scrapbook.
I did so to serve as a reminder that we should always put in more than we take.
That graph showed 100 bighorns in Texas in 1928 and 40 in 1976, just a few years before I made this clipping.
For a six year old who was already knew about the Grand Slam of sheep this was frightening.
Now according to TPWD Desert Bighorn Program Leader Froylan Hernandez there are around, 1,500 which is at historical highs.
It will take a broader awareness of their presence in the arid Trans Pecos to support things like proper domestic sheep grazing practices so their diseases do not impact the easily infected bighorns.
This license plate along with the media blitz that has introduced it will go a long way and creating a path for bighorns to find their way into the mainstream Texas wildlife consciousness.
New generations must learn of these great animals and be inspired to help them.
Through our Kingdom Zoo Wildlife Center me and my wife Lisa work with children in the foster system and those with terminal illness and who have lost a parent or sibling. We give them the wildlife encounter of their dreams through our Wild Wishes program.
The license plate has given me a chance to integrate wild sheep conservation awareness into our programs.
When I showed a group of kids at foster children’s home e a monster set Gobi argali horns I asked them what type of animal they came from.
A couple said deer, while one said antelope.
Most of the others said it was a ram.
When told that a ram is a male of a particular kind of animal none of them knew it was a sheep.
Several expectedly thought rams were male goats. (This seems to be a common belief-even among adults.)
When I told them we had wild rams in Texas in the form of the desert bighorn sheep they lit up. And they thought it was even cooler that we will have a special conservation license plate to help them.
That’s just a tiny example of the kind of conversations the new license plate will generate.
Impactful conservation takes awareness, money and creativity and all of those are present in this project.
In the long run the bighorns of Texas will benefit greatly from this small step toward the mainstream.
Wild sheep have a deep personal meaning in my life dating back to early childhood when I would sit with my Dad and cut out photos of wildlife from Sports Afield,Field & Stream and Outdoor Life and place them in a scrapbook.
Wild sheep and wild turkeys were my favorites.
Dad passed away of natural causes on a hunting trip with me five years ago but the memories of sitting in his lap and clipping out those photos will never fade.
A recent discovery of one of these scrapbooks in a storage vault brought back a flood of emotions and reminded me that a love of wild sheep has been with me my whole life. Check out the podcast which is from one of the best radio broadcasts in “Moore Outdoors” 20 year history.
Listen to learn about wild sheep of the world and to be inspired by their amazing conservation story.