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Quest for the Bighorn Hike at Ash Meadows!

Quest for the Bighorn Hike at Ash Meadows!

A female desert bighorn sheep watches from the top of the Point of Rocks Range at Ash Meadows NWR. Photo by Karen Dorn/USFWS

Ash Meadows was alive last Saturday when 23 people from Amargosa Valley, Pahrump, and Las Vegas, including crew members from the Nevada Conservation Corps, came for a hike up the Point of Rocks Range. Immediately upon arrival, six desert bighorn sheep were spotted walking up the range. Later on, a ewe and her lamb were spotted as well. During the fall, bighorn sheep are seen almost daily drinking from the freshwater springs and streams at Point of Rocks.

But where do these sheep go for the rest of the year? Do they stay in the same groups? Do they have sufficient food, water, and space to graze? Are they healthy? This species is extremely sensitive to disease – currently a form of sheep pneumonia, contracted from domestic sheep, is affecting populations in southern Nevada. The goal of the event was to begin to explore some of these questions by exposing people to real desert bighorn sheep in the wild and discussing the current research and conservation issues surrounding local sheep populations in southern Nevada.

In the 1980s the Sheep Range at Desert National Wildlife Refuge had the largest bighorn population in NV. In 1985, helicopter surveys found 436 adults, but by 1991 only 195 were seen. What could be causing such a drastic decline? Biologists speculated that predation, disease, drying up water sources and other habitat changes could be responsible, but they didn’t know for sure. To begin to find out, a study at Desert National Wildlife Refuge was initiated in 2010 with the goal of providing information for the protection, conservation and management of desert bighorn sheep on federal lands in southern Nevada. During the hike, people saw the radio telemetry equipment that is used to track radio-collared bighorn sheep and mountain lions in the Sheep Range, providing biologists with useful information on causes of mortality, survival rate, movement patterns, and population size.

A ewe and her lamb at Point of Rocks. Photo by Karen Dorn/USFWS.

Everybody was in awe watching the bighorn jump nimbly up the steep, rocky terrain. With their cloven hooves, they are able to zigzag up and down cliff faces with amazing ease, at times using ledges only two inches wide for foot holds, and bouncing from ledge to ledge over spans as wide as 20 feet! Watching these beautiful and fascinating creatures up-close only reinforced the importance of studying them. Once we are able to answer some critical questions about their populations, we will be better able to protect them and ensure that they continue to be a part of the landscape in southern Nevada for many years to come.

– Alyson Mack, Great Basin Institute Environmental Education & Outreach Specialist

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