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Sierra Nevada Bighorn: A 21st Century Wildlife Success Story

Sierra Nevada Bighorn: A 21st Century Wildlife Success Story

Two bighorn sheep laying with blinders on inside enclosed area
These pregnant females will bolster the population of a newly established herd as well as provide an infusion of fresh genetic material to helps ensure their new herd’s health and long-term survival.

Bighorn sheep with blue ear tag and collar
Outfitted with an ear tag and two tracking collars, this ram awaits delivery to a new herd where it’s hoped he will infuse the population with fresh genetics

Two men in helmets bending over a bighorn sheep with blinders on wrapped in large orange sling with white pickup trucks and two men in background
Among the goals of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Plan is the establishment of 12 viable herds across their historic range. CDFW’s capture and relocation efforts over the years have helped establish 14 herds today across 150 miles of their historic range.

Three bighorn sheep on desert landscape ground wrapped in large orange slings while to men in helmets look over them and several people stand in the background
These Eastern Sierra bighorn sheep are being prepared for their flight to a new home and new herds.

Seven animals.

Can just seven Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep really make much of an impact on the species’ future?

CDFW scientists believe so, which is why they came away pleased with the results of their annual spring helicopter capture this past March. Limited to three days of work due to strong winds and bad weather, the effort resulted in the capturing, collaring and relocation of seven sheep to new herds high in the Eastern Sierra.

Although the final chapters have yet to be written, the saga surrounding the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, one of the rarest large mammals in North America, is shaping up to be a 21st century wildlife success story.

A unique subspecies found only in the Sierra Nevada, historic populations numbered in the thousands. Their steep population decline began in the 1800s as a result of competition from livestock grazing, unregulated hunting and the transmission of disease from domestic sheep. Drought and predation further hammered their numbers, which dwindled to about 100 animals in just three herds by the mid-1990s. State and federal officials declared them endangered in 1999.

Today, less than 20 years removed from those dramatic listings, there are 14 different Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep herds spread across 150 miles of the iconic mountain range. About 600 bighorn sheep are now eking out a living atop the Sierra’s highest peaks. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are present once again inside Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park after a 100-year absence.

CDFW’s role is itself unique as a state agency tasked with leading the recovery of a federally listed endangered species. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are recolonizing their historic range – with a major assist from CDFW’s twice-yearly captures, collaring and strategic “translocations.”

This spring, three males and four pregnant females were captured from two established herds and translocated to two newly reintroduced herds – one along their western range inside Sequoia National Park and another herd in Inyo County at the southernmost extent of their range.

“Whenever we start these new herds, we like to move a minimum of 20 females as well as additional rams over time,” explained Tom Stephenson, a CDFW senior environmental scientist based in Bishop and the leader of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program. “At that point, we feel the population has enough animals to begin growing at a high enough rate and also has sufficient genetic diversity.”

Before the animals are relocated, a CDFW team records their vital statistics. Ultrasound machines are used to measure body condition and determine pregnancy status. The animals are outfitted with identifying jewelry – color-coded ear tags, VHF and GPS collars that allow biologists to identify them and track their movements for years in some cases.

All the high-tech, intensive monitoring has paid dividends with new appreciation and understanding. Once believed to always migrate to lower elevations in the winter, CDFW scientists have learned that many sheep ride out the Sierra Nevada’s inhospitable winters at 11,000- to 14,000-foot elevations.

“They are really tough,” Stephenson said. “But they’re able to do that because they put on large amounts of body fat in the summer when they’re on quality habitat. They are essentially hibernating standing up in the alpine. They’ve got an environment up there that is wind-scoured so they can find some food. They’re not having to move around much, and they’re relatively free from predators when they’re up in those altitudes in the winter time.”

Not every sheep captured is relocated.

Helicopter crews this spring attempted unsuccessfully to capture rams in the northernmost part of their range, collar them and return them to their same herds. CDFW biologists are keeping close tabs on the Mount Warren Herd near Lee Vining in Mono County in particular and its proximity to domestic sheep grazing on public land. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are disease-free and CDFW biologists want to keep them that way.

While populations have met or exceeded some recovery goals, eliminating disease – or the risk of disease – remains a significant benchmark and key to delisting or down-listing the species from endangered status.<

“There are a lot of bighorn sheep populations throughout the West that continue to struggle with disease,” Stephenson said. “So we’ve worked really hard with public land managers as well as private individuals in the Eastern Sierra to try and ensure our bighorn sheep don’t come into contact with domestic sheep.”

CDFW photos courtesy of Andrew Di Salvo. Top Photo: A helicopter crew delivers four bighorn sheep to CDFW's base camp where vital statistics were recorded, blood was taken, and the sheep were outfitted with identifying ear tags and tracking collars.


California Native Plant Week

California Native Plant Week

California hosts approximately 6,500 different kinds of plants that occur naturally in the state, and many of these are found nowhere else in the world. Some of these plants are so rare or have been so impacted by human influence that they are at risk of permanent extinction from the wild and have been protected by state and federal laws. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Native Plant Program is developing and implementing standardized and repeatable monitoring plans for ten state and federally listed plant species on nine CDFW Ecological Reserves throughout the state. This work is funded by a federal grant awarded in 2015.

a man kneels to look at wildflowers

One of the plants being monitored is Butte County meadowfoam (Limnanthes floccosa ssp. californica), which occurs at North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, north of Oroville in Butte County. The reserve is on an elevated basalt mesa that was created by ancient lava flows and supports a rare type of vernal pool called Northern Basalt Flow Vernal Pools. There were only 498 Butte County meadowfoam plants found on the reserve this spring. The reserve also supports a high diversity of other plant species that erupt with bright colors in the spring and attract hordes of visitors.

Another plant being monitored is the endangered Slender-petaled thelypodium (Thelypodium stenopetalum) that occurs at Baldwin Lake Ecological Reserve, in the San Bernardino Mountains near Big Bear. The reserve is in a unique environment known as the pebble plains, which only occur in Big Bear Valley and nearby Holcomb Valley. The pebble plains were formed when glaciers receded during the Pleistocene age and mainly consist of clay soils overlain by a layer of orange and white quartzite pebbles. Slender-petaled thelypodium only grows in this rare pebble plain habitat, and only 15 plants were found on the reserve last spring. Other rare plant species such as the endangered bird-foot checkerbloom (Sidalcea pedata) are found on the reserve and in the surrounding pebble plain habitat.

The monitoring project also includes plants at Little Red Mountain, Boggs Lake, Loch Lomond, Stone Ridge, Phoenix Field, Pine Hill and Apricum Hill Ecological Reserves. The grant is funded through January 2018 and the Native Plant Program has applied for another grant to continue this project.



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