I recently watched an excellent zoom presentation by Dan MacNulty entitled “New insights into the ecological effects of wolves in Yellowstone National Park.” MacNulty is a professor at Utah State University who has done extensive work in Yellowstone since 1995 on the effect predators have on the ecosystem. MacNulty presented an historical view of wolves and elk in Yellowstone, concentrating particularly on the effect wolves have had on elk and on aspen growth. The two summary take-aways are that:
1.a whole suite of predators (wolves, bears, cougars, and humans) have affected elk in the Northern Range (the study is inside and outside the northern border of the Park as elk migrate with the seasons), and that
2. wolves really have not had a significant trophic cascade effect on aspen (i.e. elk were pushed by wolves so that they were no longer over-browsing aspen sometimes called the Landscape of Fear) that these previous studies suggested. MacNulty did a long-term extensive study on a variety of aspen plots inside the Park which showed the Landscape of Fear theory did not hold up.
Much of the zoom presentation material wasn’t new, but several things caught my attention. A chart MacNulty presented showed that wolves take older elk, those aging out of fertility. (Chart screen capture below). He presented another chart showing that hunters tend to take younger aged female elk, the most reproductively fertile in a herd (screen capture not shown). Add that to calf predation which is mostly by black and grizzly bears, followed by wolves, coyotes, and cougars, and you have an all-age class predation by all predators (humans included). One other chart MacNulty showed was that if we eliminated the hunt on cow elk, the Northern Range population would rise to around 11,000-12,000, about double what it is now.
But what interested me was MacNulty’s comments on how elk are not disturbed by wolves unless they are actually hunting. Arthur Middleton’s study on the two Cody herds also showed the same information. Interns spent countless hours observing elk feeding. Middleton’s conclusions were that elk showed no concern for wolves unless they were within about 1/2 mile. Middleton also told me that he spent time observing elk calmly grazing on a hillside in front of an active wolf den.
When the idea of a Landscape of Fear came out several years ago, it never sat right with me. Certainly elk have changed their habits since wolves appeared, their age-old predator. Elk in Colorado for instance, where no wolves exist, will chomp on grass on golf courses, hang around roads, and show no concern. Why should they? They have become like cattle, unhinged from their natural wild instincts. Yet here in the Yellowstone ecosystem, having now adjusted to wolves returning (along with cougars and grizzlies) doesn’t mean elk are now living in a state of fear.
To me, the idea of a Landscape of Fear applies to us humans who rarely enter into an ecosystem where we are not the top predator. We take a walk or hike in grizzly country, thinking all the while there is a bear behind every bush. Or in cougar country where we have a gnawing fear for our lives. We are visitors and have no real knowledge of the habits of what would be our neighbors if we lived in daily contact with them. For wildlife, the natural world IS their home and they know their territories very well. Even migratory herds, like elk and deer, are not only following eons-old routes, but they are faithful to them. They know the habits of their animal neighbors and are well aware of the wildlife that are nearby at any time. Wildlife do not live in constant fear; they live in an Awareness of their surroundings.
Living in fear is not a useful emotion, for humans nor for wildlife. Living with Awareness is. So when MacNulty said their findings did not suggest elk were triggered by wolves (except of course when they are actively hunting them), this made sense. And then it would follow that aspen recruitment isn’t especially affected; that there are many other factors at work relative to aspen regeneration.
One very interesting comment by MacNulty was that was mountain lions, not wolves, changed elk behavior. MacNulty didn’t go into this much further. I certainly would like to hear more about this, but my guess, based on speaking with Dr. Toni Ruth for my book Ghostwalker, is that cougars of course are ambush predators and are quite competent of killing an elk wandering off into the trees. It is more risky and difficult for cougars to take down an elk in the open where elk have the advantage.
I just want to end on another note. The short youtube video called How Wolves Change Rivers went viral many years ago. Although wolves don’t change rivers nor especially help regenerate aspen, I don’t object or fault this story. Humans are storytellers and story driven. False stories like the wolves that were reintroduced are non-native Canadian wolves motivated an entire group of wolf-haters to believe and spread that narrative. On the other hand, wolves changing rivers and enhancing wildlife is a positive story that stirs our appreciation for wolves. Good stories will help foster an appreciation for wolves and other predators.
I was encouraged by The Sierra Club to write an op-ed on the dramatic changes I’ve experienced in my valley since the delisting and hunting of wolves here in Wyoming. With their help, the op-ed came out in The Salt Lake City Tribune.
The original op-ed was a longer more expressive piece which needed to be cut for the Tribune’s size qualification. I thought I’d print that here.
ONE day in late spring when the light is low and dusk lingers for hours, I headed out for a short hike in a series of craggy volcanic contours of hills and narrow arroyos. Some of these gullies hold snow melt run-off for weeks, attracting bears and cougars. Following a narrow animal trail over slippery scree slopes, I slid into a tight channel with a trickle of water running through it to inspect for tracks. As I headed back up the incline to the makeshift trail, a wolf came trotting by. We saw each other simultaneously, less than ten feet apart. I relished the moment, but she didn’t. Startled, she jolted, eyed me for less than a moment, then darted off. This was two years ago and my last close wolf encounter. Although these close encounters are vivid in my memory, my multi-year observations of the impacts wolves had on my valley is the story I cherish most.
I was lucky. I bought a home in a remote valley next to Yellowstone in 2005, less than nine years after the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction. Wolves had been in the valley for a few years, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and protected from hunting. Elk descend from the high country starting in December, and the wolves follow the elk. My first resolution was to wake up at dawn at least five days a week during January through March and observe elk, with the hopes of also seeing wolves.
Our coyotes were still learning about living with wolves, many times to their demise. With less coyotes, foxes were making a comeback. Locals told me they hadn’t seen foxes in years. I saw them frequently now. By watching winter bird activity like ravens and magpies, I could find kills. Golden eagles were always there, and surprisingly, bald eagles as well, who winter at lower elevations. The winter landscape was alive and tracking became a favorite activity of mine. Several times I tracked mountain lions to a kill site, only to see where wolves had taken over the cat’s kill. And of course, what a thrill to hear a wolf howl. February, the mating month, I heard wolves howling during the day as well as the early mornings. I saw blood trails during their estrus and my dog sometimes found cached meat under the snow.
At one point, after Idaho and Montana began their wolf hunts in 2009, our area had the highest number of wolves in the Northern Range, over 40 in several packs. I watched as these packs vied for territory, keeping their numbers in check to accommodate for territory and prey. I learned then that wolves self-regulate themselves.
During the spring and summer, when wolves left their pups at rendezvous sites, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter a lone wolf on a hike. I had made sure to have my dog well-trained so he never ran after wildlife, especially wolves. Our valley was alive, and slowly our elk herd was learning how to manage with the return of their ancient predator.
In 2012, the Feds delisted wolves in Wyoming, giving the state jurisdiction. First thing Wyoming did was to begin a hunt which lasted only two years until a Federal judge relisted them. But within those two years wolves developed a fearful relationship with humans. Before that time, watching a wolf pack from the dirt road in a vehicle didn’t bother them; encountering one on a hike, they’d observe you then run away. I never felt threatened by wolves. They are curious by nature, and like most animals, don’t want to have much to do with our species. Yet just a year after that first hunt, if they heard a car coming a mile away in the silent depth of a winter morning, they’d disappear.
From 2014 to 2016, wolves in Wyoming were back on the Endangered Species List. It was an odd interval because even though the Feds now had jurisdiction, they had not planned nor allocated extra resources for this turn of events. During the summer I ran into the USFWS biologist monitoring wolves. He asked me to let him know if I saw any wolves, especially pups. Few wolves were collared and no collaring was going on. The wolves had a short reprieve.
Then in 2017 our wolves were delisted again. Wyoming Game & Fish has decided my hunt zone, adjacent to the Park, is easier for wolf hunting opportunity because of backcountry access. That translates into the highest quotas in the Trophy Management Zone. I’ve asked why we have more harvest success here than other zones. I’m told by game managers that wolf hunters are now coming here just to kill wolves; and there are outfitters specializing in providing that killing opportunity.
With five consecutive years of hunting, I no longer see wolves nor hear them. Our winter nights are strangely silent. Sometimes I catch a few on my trail camera near my house. They always travel at night. There’s no need to look for ravens circling or golden eagles in the winter. Although our recent winters have been mild, dispersing our elk, other friends who hike confirm it’s rare to find kill sites anymore.
One of our wolf pack travels back and forth into the Park with the potential to supply fresh genetics. Last year they did not breed nor did our other main pack. Both were reduced, according to the 2020 report by Wyoming Game & Fish, to just three individuals. This year I was told that same pack was all but wiped out, a pack that has been our stronghold since I arrived in 2005.
Wyoming Game & Fish’s idea of managing wolves is hunting opportunity. But what about my opportunity? The opportunity to hear the primal howl of wolves, to observe them, and to witness all the amazing changes—changes that resulted in a landscape teeming with life. Without the natural play of all the varied wildlife, my valley, like so much of the lower 48, is a bereft landscape.
I am lucky. I’ve had so many unique wildlife encounters, memories I’ll cherish forever. I’d like my children and grandchildren to have those same opportunities. But until state wildlife agencies change their orientation, a posture that considers only hunting opportunity, disregarding ecosystem health and wildlife viewing opportunity, things won’t change. I’m using my sorrow and anger to express what we who cherish our wild lands and wildlife must do–speak up and press for change in state wildlife management outside our National Parks. Perhaps that means relisting wolves and revamping the parameters upon which jurisdiction can be given back to the states. If so, then that’s what must happen.
Until then, I’ll remember those rare and powerful moments I was privileged to experience. One evening while returning home at dusk, three wolves ran across the highway in front of my car. Beginning their night’s hunt, I was struck by their excitement, their intensity and force. They seemed the very embodiment of the immense and wondrous power that is the Universe itself.
Life can be suppressed, but it cannot be crushed. Wolves, in their ceaseless energy, their deep intelligence, epitomize the purity and dynamism of Life itself.
I recently did a webinar for The Mountain Lion Foundation on the complex issue of bighorn sheep management and mountain lions with a focus on the Southwest United States. Routinely, mountain ranges are cleared of mountain lions for relocation of bighorns, and then predator management is continued in those areas with either increased hunt quotas or agency-paid contractors to protect these small bighorn herds.
It’s a complex subject because bighorns are under continual stress due to diseases from domestic sheep and goats, never able to get a leg up to build a healthy herd. Although bighorns are subject to many diseases, the major respiratory disease, Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (MOVI), is the ringleader. MOVI weakens the bighorn’s immune system, making them vulnerable to a host of diseases and stressors. Unlike the herd in the Absaroka mountains of Northwest Wyoming where I live that has a metapopulation of over 4000 bighorns in a contiguous protected landscape, desert bighorns live in small herds, on isolated ranges, where connective corridors have been disrupted by domestic animals, roads, and housing developments. Small herds, with weakened genetics, are especially vulnerable to mass die-offs due to MOVI.
Last year I conducted a series of interviews with biologists and agencies and made a trip to Arizona and New Mexico to dig deeper into this issue. Bighorns need our help, but killing lions continuously cannot be the answer. While disease is the lynchpin issue with bighorns, other factors contribute to weakening them, including water, genetic diversity, how to establish metapopulation connectivity, degraded habitat, and of course climate change.
In my latest book, Shadow Landscape, I include an essay that explores these issues and what might be done to help bighorns that would also protect mountain lions. You can read that essay for free on my website blog site. You can also watch the webinar on youtube.
The issue is complex and I encourage everyone who cares about wildlife, bighorns and mountain lions, to watch the webinar and/or read my essay.
Yesterday I hiked to one of my trail camera sites planning on retiring the camera for the summer. Because our deer and elk migrate into the high country around Yellowstone starting in May, there is little action with large predators. Grizzly bears start to disappear around early July. On the east side of Yellowstone in the high elevation cirques of the Absarokas, moth sites feed the bears. Cougars are following our deer which make one of the longest migrations in the ecosystem. Wolves probably completed denning and will be taking their pups to rendezvous sites with a babysitter or two, while the other adults forage for food.
So you can imagine my surprise when I looked at my camera videos. My newest male cougar is still hanging around, marking his territory with scrapes. He appears to have beat off another large male that has one eye, the other probably lost in a fight. One-eye was last seen at the end of March.
Even more exciting, I caught a mating pair of grizzlies. By the time of the year, and the fact that these are two adults, you can be sure this video is a male following a female in estrus.
In summer, when grizzlies disperse for high elevations, the black bears take over. Male black bears will make sure to display who is boss by tree rubbing, destroying cameras, and stomping which also puts down their scent. Interestingly, grizzlies know they are the real top of the food chain and could care less about cameras, although they do rub trees, both males and females. Here is a video of a grizzly female with two cubs spending time tree marking with her cubs following suit.
On a very interesting note, I camera-captured two blonde animals this spring—a fox and a black bear—both fairly rare. To understand this in greater depth, I contacted Jim Halfpenny, well-known mammalogist and tracker. Jim told me he had never seen a fox this blonde, whether at fur sales or in the field. He thought maybe this fox could be a fur farm escapee, but in my inquiries we haven’t had a fox farm in the Big Horn Basin since 1996, plus I live in the high mountains next to Yellowstone so the mystery continues. In addition I’ve never had a fox show up at this location before. This little blonde red fox continued to visit this site over the course of several months, which adds to the mystery.
The blonde phase black bear is also unusual around these parts. Halfpenny told me he had only seen one briefly around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and never as blonde as this one. Color phases of black bears are not unusual, but the blonde phase is the rarest. Here is a link to an interesting breakdown of color phases of black bears in North America. Although it is presented by a hunter, it is informative. I do NOT support any trophy hunting, but I encourage you to watch this for information. No actual hunting is in the video.
A large carnivore biologist who I showed the videos to had an interesting thought. “Wonder if this is a genetic expression due to the initiation of climate change,” he wrote me. Thinking outside the box leads to interesting possibilities.
Finally, my new book Shadow Landscape is now available on Amazon. These are stories of wildlife encounters I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. I appreciate all my readers and followers. Thanks for your interest in our iconic wildlife.
My new book, Shadow Landscape: Stories from the Field will soon be at the presses. In Shadow Landscape I relate personal stories of wildlife encounters, some intentional and other serendipitous. Below is a summary of each story for your reading pleasure.
Part I – One fall I had an unusual visitor at my home. A Pika Visits chronicles my month living with a pika at 6300 feet.
Two of the stories come from when I lived in the Bay Area: Gil and the Bees and The World of Fungi. As many might know, my background is in plants, but I also kept bees. Gil and the Bees relates many trials and errors of novice beekeeping, and the amazing affect going into a hive has on one’s consciousness.
The World of Fungi is a weekend adventure I spent with two avid and intense mushroomers who sold their collections to high-end restaurants in San Francisco. Mushrooming is a unique hobby and very competitive. The story takes place in Mendocino County on the coast.
In Dickinson Park I leave the reader to answer the question what animal it was I heard screaming through lonely forests in an area that had been off-limits to humans for over a year.
Wild Cats is a series of three personal stories about the cats which live in my ecosystem: cougars, lynx and bobcats.
During the final season of my dog Koda’s life (see Koda and the Wolves for his full story) I took him daily to a nearby hidden pond to swim. The remote area had a lot of wildlife. I kept a diary of the events.
In Part II, I tell stories that gave me insight into our current wildlife management institutions and my thoughts for future constructive change.
Wolves in the Crosshairs are two stories of wolf incidents. In the second, I ask the question: what is the objective of wildlife monitoring (other than concrete scientific studies with goals) and are we moving towards wildlife husbandry with so much technology.
For those who want to recreate in grizzly country, for those who want to escape urban life and move to grizzly occupied and corridor areas, I press in Grizzlies in a Windowless Room that the cautious advice isn’t to carry bear spray. The cautious advice is that we all must endeavor to preserve habitat and tolerance for the last of our grizzlies. The story feeds through a grizzly mom with three small cubs personal encounter into the arduous year that a grizzly hunt was almost enacted.
The year I learned that out of state hunters can raise dollars to pay a government agency to kill coyotes in specified areas in a state far from their own. Many of us are familiar with Wildlife Services killing coyotes for ranchers, but in this story they kill coyotes for hunters, where even the regional manager for Wildlife Services says it makes no sense and will have no affect. Coyote: The Fall Guy is about that resilient yet so persecuted animal that is the scapegoat for many of our troubles.
Bighorn’s Gordian Knot is the longest essay. In it I delve into the complex reasons why our native bighorn sheep are continually on the edge of die-off and why mountain lions are not the issue. That story in particular contains an example of how wildlife agencies can adapt, listen to a wide range of public opinion (not just hunters), and allow diverse working groups to drive effective policy.
The connection between all these tales is my own clumsy attempt to touch nature’s heart, to understand the ineffable, to reach beyond my grasp and dance the complex dance where nature is the invisible, and shadow, instructor.
Several years ago a friend suggested I write a book of stories and essays centered around wildlife. The slow pace of life during the last year allowed me time to consider which stories I wanted to flush out and include, as well as the theme of the book. The final product is my new book Shadow Landscape: Stories from the Field.
All the stories are personal experiences, a few from my time living in the Bay Area, some from travels in the Southwest, with the bulk of the tales coming from my home around Yellowstone.
The shadow in Shadow Landscape refers to the life around us that we normally are not tuned into and have little to no integral part of—that is of course, the dance of wildlife. Here is an excerpt from the Preface describing what you can expect when you buy the book.
Working for many years with plants and animals, I now consider the animal world like a troupe of jazz dancers. Wildlife sway and move to each other. They anticipate their partner’s next maneuver; they are creative in their calculations and read with expertise every gesture, smell, and sign on the land. Meanwhile, we humans sit on the dance-floor bench with only the two-step under our belt. We are bumbling and awkward in our participation. Loud, fast, self-absorbed. Possibly the connection between all these tales is my own clumsy attempt to touch nature’s heart, to understand the ineffable, to reach beyond my grasp and feel like I too am learning to jazz dance.
Two of the stories in the first section, Gil and the Bees and The World of Fungi, come from my time living in the Bay Area. Of course, we can connect with the beauty and wonder around us even in our backyards. As a child, my love of nature began by wandering my Los Angeles backyard counting bird nests every spring and admiring the differences in their eggs. Most of the other essays take place from my home in Wyoming, where some of the last large animals in North America have room to roam.
End of the Wild, section two, concentrates on human interference and our bumbling, as opposed to our wonder. Each story, from Wolves in the Crosshairs to Killing Coyotes to Grow Deer tells a personal experience of human intrusion into the natural daily lives of wild animals. Every incident directly and personally educated me as to how far humans are willing to go to dominant the landscape. Bighorn’s Gordian Knot centers around a thorny issue I became aware of when writing Ghostwalker. Mountain lions, particularly in the southwest United States, were being cleared off mountain ranges in order to reintroduce bighorn sheep. The issue is complicated since bighorn sheep were on the brink of winking out. In this essay, I delve deeply into the bighorn’s multitude of issues, why mountain lions are not a major factor, and what a step forward might be.
In Part II I ask the questions: how will we protect our wildlife into the future? What is our relationship to wildness? What are we losing when we lose wild nature and what do wildlife need to go about their business sans our awkward dance?
Shadow Landscape contains six stories in Part I—The Shadow Landscape, and four stories in Part II—End of the Wild.
I expect the book to be released within the next few months. I will have more information for you soon, including price, page length, and I’ll share the table of contents with some excerpts. Book price has not been set, but I am planning on a deep discount when you buy a copy directly through my website. Buying through my website entitles you to a signed copy. Books will also be available through Amazon and your local bookstore.
Humans are story-driven. We are visual creatures and imagination drives us to act. For those reasons, I feel we need new and better stories that press on us to conserve wilderness and wildlife for future generations. That is my hope in writing Shadow Landscape.
Disease, domestic sheep proximity, habitat degradation, human encroachment, water construction, predation—all part of the tangled web of problems for bighorns. But there are still other pressing problems for these animals that may have deeper consequences.
A big stumbling block biologists are facing is connectivity. Sky Islands and basin/range topography are comprised of isolated islands of habitat. Minimal population size for healthy genetic diversity seems to be around 200 animals to ward off most stressors. Historically, desert bighorns existed as metapopulations, large areas of basin/range where bighorns could roam and connect freely. A bighorn population wasn’t just one mountain top, but a wide swath of desert and mountains containing sub-populations inside of metapopulations. Harley Shaw commented to me that in looking at the history of desert bighorns in the Southwest, his view was that historically mountain ranges with these small populations were constantly winking out. Roaming instincts would push a few bighorns across desert floors to repopulate new ranges. Today that’s a near impossibility.
The entire state of Nevada alone was once considered one large population of bighorn sheep. “Moisture is so spotty, and we have so many rain shadows,” Mike Cox from Nevada Department of Wildlife relates, “that bighorns were very nomadic. They would chase green-up.”
I asked Cox about connectivity today . “It’s pretty sad, especially in Clark County which is the county of Las Vegas. We have islands, these sky islands of bighorn sheep that can’t go anywhere. They can’t roam. They can’t go on forays or they’ll get killed on 6 or 8 lane highways.”
Along with roads and barriers, there is the issue of a roaming bighorns coming into contact with domestic livestock and disease. Without a viable solution, many wildlife agencies resort to periodic infusions of additional bighorns on a mountain. With new knowledge of disease strains, even that has its limitations. Amber Munig with AZGF told me the agency was looking at boosting a bighorn population southwest of the Colorado River. They tested both herds and although both have titers for Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, the strains were different so they cancelled the translocation.
“Our translocation program is slower now because we don’t have as many areas to put them into and we’re very cautious about moving pathogens from one population to another,” Munig says. “We’re mostly supplementing existing populations at this point in time to ensure the genetics is still there and that becomes a concern when you have fragmentation, especially with roads that don’t allow them to cross between mountain ranges.”
Mike Cox is looking towards another answer. Some of the new research points to chronic asymptomatic disease shedders as the reason why a herd just cannot recover. The newest push is to find these shedders and kill them, called “test and remove.” Experiments in Oregon’s Hells Canyon by researcher Francis Cassirer shows promising results with a natural fade-out of the disease over time when carriers were removed in connected populations. But, as Cox points out to me again, “just because one bighorn gets one Mycoplasma strain doesn’t mean the next strain that comes along won’t be worse. There is no immunity that’s generated from one to the other.”
Jessica Moreno with the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection looks to wildlife linkages as a viable solution for healthy wildlife. Focusing mainly on Pima County around the Greater Tucson area, the Coalition partnered with Arizona Department of Transportation and others to plan a wildlife crossing. The crossing, one under and another over State Route 77, were installed simultaneous with the final bighorn translocation into the Catalinas in 2016. This first of several planned crossings connects the Catalinas to the Tortolita mountains. The next crossing is planned for Interstate 10, a more challenging endeavor, that would continue the wildlife passage from the Tortolitas to the Tucsons, the Silverbells, and through Saguaro National Park West into open desert country and Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation.
Moreno’s viewpoint is that bighorns face a tangled web of stressors, and many we might not even understand or recognize as stressors. But if we look at the bigger picture, giving the bighorns roam to connect, even if one population crashes, more bighorn sheep will come in to boost the population.
“By taking that landscape approach, you allow the animals the freedom to respond to stressors on their own, leaving that option available so they can respond to fire, disease or climate change. Their populations can crash but then rebound the way they need to. I like that about the work I’m doing to establish wildlife corridors and build wildlife crossings as it reaches across different species and gives a little bit more resilience to those populations that are dealing with different pressures.”
So far, with trail cameras placed in the area, State Route 77 crossing hasn’t produced any bighorn sheep using it over the last four years. But it still can be considered successful, with over 5,000 mule deer using it, along with javelinas, bobcats, coyotes, and lots of smaller species. But crossings elsewhere have been successful for bighorns. Wildlife crossings installed between Kingman and the Nevada state line on U.S. 93 between 2007 and 2011 documented use in the first four years by over 6.000 bighorns. Given the complexity of disease issues, it’s hard to know if these kinds of connections might solve the fresh genetic flow yet doom a population to new strains of disease.
The biggest unknown of all is our rapidly changing climate. Connective corridors undoubtedly help facilitate movement, allowing wildlife to adjust to habitat changes and water availability as their environment heats up. The totality of all the issues affecting bighorn sheep in particular is complicated and nuanced. Connective corridors might solve one piece of their Gordian knot but certainly not all.
I grab my snowshoes, prepare a few snacks, and head up to a high mesa locals call Little Bald Ridge. In deep snow it’s difficult to follow the spines of the lower ravines that lead to the mountain top and the animal trail that hugs the hillside higher up would be obscured. But we’ve had little snow this winter and today with a clear sky, a light wind, and temperatures in the teens, it should only take an hour to climb to the wide butte.
I’m hoping to see our little band of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. They like the wind-swept meadows and craggy overlooks. The elk covet the area too, though the two species never group up. Wolves might be there, but their interest is in the scent of the elk, not the bighorns.
The final ascent leaves me a bit winded. The trees have disappeared. I always have to remember to watch for a large sinkhole beside the animal trail, which the trail swings directly alongside. The elk have trodden down the snow by its edges, but the hole is steep and deep and makes me nervous. I climb the last few hundred yards to the meadow expanse. The ground is cropped clean from the large elk herds who take advantage of this high windy spot that sweeps the snow clear. Even the sagebrush is just bare stems. As I clear the rise, I spot the bighorns. A small herd of ewes and lambs clasp the rocky cliff edges along the eastern rim. The meadows stretch to the west in a large expanse. Picking up my binoculars, I see a mixed age group of rams grazing in a hollow below.
I’ve been here before in winter without seeing bighorns or elk. The wind is usually in a howl, which highlights those moments of deep terrestrial loneliness. Without the bighorns, this top-of-the-world is not right. It’s definitely special to see the bighorns here today. Even so, these small groupings evoke both elation and sadness. I know that on these same ridges just a few hundred years ago, the native peoples who lived in these mountains watched herds of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bighorns. These ones today are the hanger-oners, the bighorn sheep that survived the onslaught of white men and their livestock diseases. They are the toughest, yet they eye me with sweet docility, unafraid of my presence. I sit down a few hundred yards away and enjoy. Soon they pay me no mind, and go about their browsing business.
Bighorn sheep appear tough because of the rugged places they live, yet in reality they are soft creatures, whether we are speaking of their animal nature or their constitution. Just being with them I feel softer. I’d like my grandchildren to be able to experience their soft-tough nature. The fact that their presence on this planet coincides with ours implies we must care about their plight, not let it extinguish. That forces us to answer difficult ethical and moral questions. First, there is the money that supports these herculean efforts to help bighorns. Where does it come from? We’re talking about millions of dollars. All the western Fish and Game Agency bighorn sheep programs obtain one-quarter of their revenues from bighorn hunting licenses sold to the general public. The other three-quarters comes from Governor’s auctions and raffles. Kevin Hurley of the Wild Sheep Foundation gives me an example.
“In South Dakota, by statute, there are only two bighorn sheep licenses and they are resident only. That generates $550 a year in revenue. The first year they had [a governor’s tag], it sold for $102,000, and 100% of it went back to South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. So for $102,000 think what can you do for bighorn sheep versus $550.”
Very few bighorn hunting tags are sold per state every year. The situation with bighorns is just too precarious. What supports bighorn sheep programs are these tags that are up for bid at auctions, bought by the super wealthy. For instance, Rick Smith, a retired telecommunications executive from Dallas, was the highest bidder in New Mexico’s auction and won seven tags over eight consecutive years to hunt bighorn sheep. He spent over $1 million dollars on those tags, 90% of which goes directly to New Mexico Game and Fish’s bighorn sheep enhancement program.
If we value bighorn sheep then there needs to be a way to fund programs that support bighorns other than through hunts and super tags. There is something obscene in the sole financial support to save bighorns throughout the West—native wildlife which are in the public trust—relying on a sliver of mega-rich trophy hunters. Additionally, being dependent exclusively on hunters for bighorn dollars creates a vicious cycle that pressures agencies to put more bighorns on every mountain so as to increase revenue. It also fuels extreme predator management programs like in New Mexico, where the culling of lions never ends despite bighorn herds that are thriving.
Funding is only one aspect. I think we have to be honest—the intensity of life-support programs that especially desert bighorn sheep need may soon be beyond justification. We need to ask ourselves the hard questions. Can we continue to transport water, not only because of the price tag, but as water itself becomes more precious in a thirsty Southwest, will the program even be sustainable. With the extreme drought conditions of 2020, Arizona hauled close to one million gallons of water, some even by helicopter.
Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae is here for the long run. Researchers are still puzzled how to control it and how to deal with emerging new strains. If we support separation of bighorns from domestic sheep and goats, are we willing to boycott wool from Western growers? Or to contribute cash to buy out wool growers and their public lands grazing allotments? While Bighorn Sheep NGO’s have already been actively raising dollars to help retire grazing allotments, isn’t this the responsibility of all Americans? Again, wildlife are in the public trust, therefor all of our responsibility.
It’s obviously absurd and expensive to keep plopping new bighorn sheep recruits into mountain ranges to enhance their gene flow. Should we instead adopt the “test and remove” program, where shedders are identified and culled? Do we give this kind of program a cut-off limit?
There is a point sometime in the future where we’ll have to cut bighorns loose. Yet we do have an obligation to the bighorns to do our best for them, to right so many of the wrongs they’ve suffered from our misdeeds. In my mind, perhaps our best is displayed in places like the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada or San Andres National Wildlife Refuge—immense tracts of mountain ranges surrounded by even larger tracts of wild areas completely off-limits to the public and livestock. Allow the bighorn populations to fluctuate naturally.
Instead of trying to fill every historically occupied mountain with bighorn sheep, we should consider a sub-population model, where suitable habitat can provide the bighorn sheep natural connective corridors to other nearby ranges. Land might need to be purchased to enlarge the protected area and grazing allotments retired. Initial habitat restoration would be completed, then we’d just let bighorns be bighorns, and lions be lions. This would be asking a lot of the general public; we all need to step up, not just hunters and the super-rich who can buy tags. An egalitarian effort is needed; an extreme push, perhaps a sprint rather than a marathon. For the bighorns sake, it’s time to decide if we are all willing to rise up to the task this implies—guardians of the ancient way of life of the bighorn sheep. At the very least, we owe it to the bighorns to take a hard look at ourselves and what we are willing to do.
I’m in Tucson for the month to explore the subject of bighorn sheep and visit with relatives. We’re staying in a rental house nestled along the base of the Santa Catalina mountains. In years past, I’ve explored Tucson’s general area, but I’ve never had a prolonged stay within the city proper.
Tucson has a beautiful backdrop. Besides being cradled by the Santa Catalinas, which rise up to 9000 feet, its eastern border is Saguaro National Park East, and its western border is the National Park West. Other smaller sky islands dot Tucson’s surrounding. The foothills of the Catalinas are filled with stately Saguaro cactus, like tall multi-armed soldiers guarding the mountain itself. The main two lane artillery, Catalina Scenic Highway, pushes ever upward through numerous ecosystems, from desert scrub through pine-oak woodlands and finally to Mt. Lemmon and a subalpine forest. The mountain, so close to a city of half a million people, is a playground for cyclists, equestrians, climbers, hikers, ORVer’s, campers and even target practitioners. What stood out for me amidst the beauty of the landscape was the development that’s skyrocketing. Trophy homes and golf courses clasp the edge right up to the public lands. Suburbia surrounds the National Park. The desert floor is a sea of traffic and homes between the surrounding mountain ranges.
Desert bighorn sheep once roamed freely from range to range across the desert floor. Called a metapopulation, this allowed the sheep to search for precious water sources, food, and escape habitat from predators. The Santa Catalinas can only support about 120 bighorns, a tiny population vulnerable to genetic decline, drought, and disease. But with connections to other populations in surrounding ranges, these sheep could exchange genetics, ensuring their survival. Walk-abouts are built into the hard-wiring of bighorn sheep, in particular males, for this very reason.
This scenario was what populated the Sky Islands of southern Arizona for thousands of years with bighorn sheep. Through market hunting, disease from domestic sheep and habitat destruction from livestock, the population decline probably began slowly with the Spanish in the early 1600s, only to fall steeply in the 1800s with the influx of miners and settlers into the area. But bighorns persisted in the Catalinas while other nearby ranges winked out, probably because of the diversity of habitat and how large the range is compared to others.
Joe Sheeley grew up in Tucson. As a boy, he watched bighorns on the mountains, fascinated with their agility, spryness, and ability to negotiate even the toughest terrain. But by 1996, the Catalina bighorn herd had disappeared. The Arizona Game and Fish was sending biologists to Pusch Ridge, the favorite escape haunts of the sheep, to periodically scout for sheep, yet they always came up empty. New rules were created with the hope if there were sheep they could be protected: No dogs on Pusch Ridge trails; no hiking off-trail during lambing season. Yet no lambs, rams or ewes were ever seen.
Sheeley is the former Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society president. With the influx of new disease science, in hindsight he has his own theory of what happened.
“In the late 1980s a ram made it all the way from the Superstitions to the Catalinas.”
“The Superstitions are east of Phoenix. That’s a long trek,” I commented.
“Those sheep that had been transplanted from the Kofa mountain range to the Canyon Lake Superstition area had yellow ear tags. That’s how we know where he came from. In my opinion, there is no telling what that ram came into contact with in his journey to the Catalinas. I really believe he ran across hobby domestic sheep or goats, and I think that herd got infected with disease and died off very quickly.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, game agencies, fueled by money and demand from hunting groups along with the awareness of the steep losses of bighorns across the West, began intensively translocating Rocky Mountain and Desert Bighorns into their once native ranges. Arizona Game and Fish (AZGF) was no exception. Ramping up reintroductions across the state, they had done extensive evaluations of historical ranges, analyzing water availability, quality of habitat, domestic sheep density, human development, expansion and escape potential. They rated ranges on a scale, then came back and looked at even finer details such as vegetation, and diversity of wildlife. Those that rated highest were the first translocations. Although the Catalinas were of highest quality, the mountain was put on the back burner for relocations.
AZGF had been doing relocations in low density population areas where people didn’t care or pay attention to their predator management policies. Clearing lions off of reintroduction areas beforehand wouldn’t fly in the progressive, environmentally-minded city of Tucson. Even the agency’s somewhat scaled-down predator policy for the Kofas would be highly controversial. The agency had to figure out a way to gain the public’s trust in order to put sheep back on the mountain. State game agencies garner their monies from hunting and fishing tags. Their primary support comes from hunters, the culture of game agencies tends to be hunters, and their primary audience is hunters.
Amber Munig of AZGF told me ““[The plan for the Catalinas] was unique because it was next to a large metropolitan area. And we knew there would be a lot of interest in how we would approach it and a lot of controversy in any kind of predation management we were to implement.”
To the agencies credit, they embarked on a bold idea—a working group comprised of a variety of stakeholders. They pledged to abide by the group’s plan, which would be adaptive depending upon if conditions were to change. Four environmental groups opted in, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Sky Island Alliance. On the other side were sportsmen, Arizona Game and Fish, and Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. Disagreement abounded, but the biggest rift was the mountain lion strategy. As one can imagine, opinions ranged from doing no predator controls to clearing the mountain of lions in advance of translocations.
Reintroductions of bighorn sheep are typically done in three to four rounds of thirty sheep. A small herd of thirty sheep, neophytes to a new habitat, devoid of any resident sheep which can guide them to prime escape habitat, are exceptionally vulnerable to predation. In previous translocations, the AZGF usually took what they considered the safest, and easiest, way to give new introductions a leg up by “pre-treating” the area and raising lion quotas. By using a diverse Advisory Board that had to reach a consensus, a middle ground was guaranteed to be reached.
Every bighorn would be collared instead of the customary one out of every three bighorns. And no lions would be collared. Lions would be pursued and killed only after evidence showed they’d killed a bighorn, and the pursuit was to be cut off after five days. Females with kittens would be off-limits. Mortalities would be identified through the sheep GPS signal and only then would a pursuit be triggered. This was a complete turnabout to the Kofa AZGF plan where every lion in a wide net surrounding the refuge was collared, making tracking and dispatching easy.
The first capture and translocation took place in November of 2013. Thirty-one bighorns, seven rams and twenty-four ewes, were released. The captures came from the Trigo mountains near Yuma and the Plomosas near Quartzite. By the end of March 2014, sixteen sheep were dead, fourteen by lions. Because of the difficult terrain and the policy of no lion collaring, only three lions had been removed. Houndsmen had to run the lion off a kill to identify the offending lion. One lion went down a cliff face, too steep for the dogs to pursue. Some went into developed areas so the chase was called off. Although the local paper had done many stories on the Advisory Group’s plan before the initial translocation, and there had been several public meetings, the steep losses produced a public outcry on all sides. The Game and Fish held a public meeting in the spring. While the previous three meetings were lightly attended, this one was packed, with protesters holding signs outside the meeting hall.
“We went out of the way to make sure the public knew what we were up to,” said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity. “People tend to not pay attention to something like that until there’s a dead lion. Then everybody is keenly interested.”
Mark Hart, public information officer for AZGF, agreed the plan had already been highly publicized.
“We wanted to be transparent. The grand bargain was: Is it worth it to put bighorn sheep back on the mountain to lose some mountain lions. The mountain lion population was, in our estimation, quite healthy. Based on hunt data and field data prior to the project, we estimated 67 mountain lions in that mountain range and the one connected to it by a pass”
My month in Tucson coincided with the worst drought year in decades. Despite the lack of moisture, during my hikes in the Catalinas and surrounding ranges, I still observed coatis, mule deer, cos deer, and javelinas even with the heavy toll of human activity. The AZGF knew there was plenty of sufficient food for lions. Everyone had expected some losses, but losing half the sheep was a shock.
With the GPS collars in place, managers could visualize where the sheep were moving. Sheeley says the first release site was based on his historic observations, but many of the sheep, unfamiliar with the mountain, headed for the high forests. Without clear visibility, good escape habitat, and naivete as to their bearings, they were easy pickings for lions. Luckily, the remaining sheep found the prime habitat of Pusch Ridge. There they thrived. In fact, at least five lambs were born in the spring with the herd stabilizing. No mortalities were observed for the next seven months. The advisory board had stood firm in their consensus on lions, even in the heat of controversy. With the good news, the second release was scheduled for November and another thirty sheep. This time using their generational genetic compass, those sheep headed for their kin right up to Pusch Ridge. Two more releases took place through 2016.
Hart tells me what he felt happened was some of the sheep came from mountain ranges where no lions existed.
“Most of the sheep came from the Yuma area, but one year we did take one-half of the allotment from the Superstition mountains. Those sheep did not fare well. One reason is they did not have prior exposure to pneumonia and a few of them got it and died. You can’t prove this scientifically, but what we felt was also happening was they were not as well adapted to the presence of lions as the Yuma area ones were. So the lions picked off a few.”
By the end of the project, eight lions were taken out over the four years of the relocation project. If there hadn’t been an advisory board representing a wide variety of voices, it’s almost certain AZGF would have resorted to clearing the area of lions before a second release commenced. As of fall 2020, seventy-five bighorns were on the mountain, the predator program retired in 2016. Lamb recruitment is almost 50% (typical is 25%), with many sightings of uncollared rams and ewes, indicating they were born on the mountain. Since the mountain only historically supported about 120 sheep, the Catalina bighorn herd is well on its way to success.
The Catalinas may be a model of how these relocations should be conducted. Game agencies are responsible for managing state wildlife, but wildlife, considered in the “public trust,” means all the public. A working group representing a variety of viewpoints is a good model for all wildlife agencies, especially on contentious topics such as predator management. Arizona Game and Fish should be applauded for going out on a limb and taking the chance. And they abided by the groups recommendations. When circumstances became dicey, they didn’t revert to easy knee-jerk reactions, but stuck to the plan hammered out by the advisory board.
Even so, the future of the Catalina herd is unknown. That herd along with others on isolated ranges in the desert Southwest, face a myriad of problems into the future. One of the biggest unknowns is the consequences bighorns will face with climate change and the drying of the West.
“Watch this,” Ron Thompson was driving back to the researchers bungalow when he spotted a half dozen oryx hanging by the side of the road near a fence line. We’d stopped to watch them as they nonchalantly eyed us back . Huge, bulky, like a hefty elk with 40” scimitar-shaped horns, their beautiful and unusual black and white facial pattern reminded me of a Rorschach test. A black triangle framed their noses with mirrored white splotches on either side. Sharp black edged body markings and tan bodies, oryx have a regal exotic appearance. The animals stood and stared at the truck, just a few feet away.
“They love to race trucks. As soon as we start, they’ll run, then cut across us.”
My pup Hintza was in the back seat. I called to alert him to what was about to take place. As Ron gunned the truck, the oryx take off. Hintza had a happy moment watching them run, his head out the window. But the oryx don’t speed off into the horizon like the pronghorn I’m used to in Wyoming. They quickly get bored and resume standing and staring on the opposite side of the road.
We’re not in Africa where oryx are native to the Kalahari desert. This is the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico. Oryx, also known as Gemsbok, were brought here in the late 1960s. Frank Hibben, avid big game hunter, controversial archaeologist, professor at University of New Mexico, and chairman of the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission, had the bright idea of bringing oryx in for a big game hunting experience. To hunters, the barrenness of the Missile Range must have appeared as if they needed filling up. Researchers believed they’d simply stay within the Tularosa Basin, never growing beyond 500 to 600 animals. Mountain lions would control them, they said. But in Africa, prides of lions hunt them. Our solitary lions would rather take their chances on smaller, less formidable prey.
Ninety-three oryx were brought to the Missile Range between 1969 and 1973. Oryx barely need water, they eat anything with or without leaves, have no natural predators, and breed year round. Instead of self-limiting, the oryx thrived. The Land of Enchantment was now theirs for the overtaking. Six thousand today roam in southern New Mexico, and they need more and more room. Oryx inhabit not just the dry basins, but wander through mule deer and sheep habitat, stand on bajadas, invade washes, intrude on private lands, and comingle with bighorn sheep.
Lindsay Smythe, San Andres Refuge Manager, tells me the Refuge allows depredation hunts from September through March. Hunters are escorted to the field, and told which one to shoot. Males have harems and the animals are difficult to sex.
Smythe is also concerned about disease transfer. “I will tell you on our bighorn sheep survey, I saw a lot of oryx up in sheep country. I started to count them, but finally gave up. We’re going to burn up too much fuel (in the helicopter) counting oryx instead of bighorn. They don’t get up into the highest steepest areas, but they do definitely interact.”
She wonders if the scabies outbreak that brought the sheep almost to extinction in the 1990s might not have been transferred from oryx. The timeline certainly fits, with precipitous drops in the bighorn population around ten years after the oryx introduction. Even so, the Refuge still has issues with other diseases common to bighorns which oryx definitely do transmit. Plus the science is still learning about the entire disease complex in bighorn sheep transmissible from other ungulates.
Even with over 1000 hunt tags issued every year, the NMGF can’t keep the oryx in check.
Nearby, on the Turner Armendaris Ranch, biologists are concerned about over browsing due to oryx. The Ranch holds oryx hunts every year, with reduced rates in the Fra Cristobals, bighorn country. Turner has one of the largest bighorn herds in New Mexico. The browse pressure from oryx compounds other thorny problems like drought and climate change.
Over in Nevada, a similar problem exists but with a more recognizable species. I called Mike Cox of Nevada Department of Wildlife to discuss bighorns there. Nevada once held the largest desert bighorn population in the West. The state’s classic basin-range topography was considered one huge metapopulation. When I began by asking about his biggest concern, he said “if you love wildlife in Nevada, the biggest problem that should be on the top of your to-do list is feral horses. We have more biomass of wild feral horses than the combined wild ungulate populations in the state of Nevada.” I asked Cox where those horses were concentrated. Were they in bighorn country?
“They’re everywhere. They’re in the Mohave Desert, they’re in the Great Basin Desert, they’re in the sub-alpine, they’re in the alpine.”
“How many horses do you have?”
“About 60,000. Way too many cows, way too many horses. Our ecosystem is being destroyed as we speak. (Nevada) is going to be unable to move into the future if you overlay climate change.”
Even when I asked him about Nevada’s policies on mountain lion controls for bighorns, his response was telling.
“We shut a couple of bighorn herd hunts down, not because of disease, but because of lion predation and (Cox’s emphasis) feral horses.”
When I thought he was speaking solely of habitat destruction, he corrected me.
“They drink all the water. A bighorn will never go back to a water source that has a horse, ever. It’s their behavior. Because of that they get hugely impacted and die of thirst because the horses guard the water source for four months of the year.”
Cox segued into mountain lions and water sources. “When they have to go to a water source, mountain lions have such a great learned behavior and very efficient, so they can take their toll on the population. Mountain lions are not the reason that bighorns are in trouble, just the tip of the spear. There are a lot of things that contribute to bighorns not doing well.”
The overpopulation and mismanagement of wild horses and open range livestock is an enormously controversial topic. This essay isn’t about tackling or outlaying solutions for proper management, but to shine a light on how large, free-ranging, non-native ungulates imperil our ecosystems and our native wildlife across the West.
“Under the aegis of wildlife management, the oxymoron that is now a fact of life for most North American creatures, spins unbounded tinkering, with further tinkering made necessary by past tinkering, effects of causes, effects of causes — a “cascade of consequences” precipitated by human intervention, well intended though it may be.” —Ellen Meloy
San Andres ewe 067 was languishing on a rocky hillside, chewing on tufts of grass when she heard the far-off noise of a chopper. She hated helicopters. She’d already been netted and captured once. That was when she was four years old. The biologists collared, tested and treated her for scabies, a disease that was killing her sheep compadres. During the capture she broke her leg. Although her leg mended, she hadn’t forgotten the noise associated with the trauma. Spotting the helicopter in the distance, she darted uphill into a covey of rocks. The helicopter passed without seeing her.
Before the arrival of the market hunters killing sheep to feed railroad workers and miners, before settlers trailed thousands of sheep into Texas and New Mexico, this eighty-five-mile rib of northward trending rock called the San Andres Mountains was prime habitat for desert bighorn sheep. Biologists describe it as a metapopulation: sheep that travel from one range to another, following fluctuations in weather patterns and forage. The home range of ewe 067, probably held the largest population of desert bighorns in the southern Chihuahuan desert of New Mexico. Unhindered by human interference, sheep connected north through the a desert gap into the Oscura Mountains and southward into the Organ Mountains. With the arrival of livestock that brought disease, overgrazing, and unregulated hunting, the sheep died off. By the 1940s only a small remnant bighorn population lived here.
To save the desert bighorns, the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge was created in1941. Only thirty-three sheep remained, mostly in the southern half of the range. White Sands Missile Range was created in 1945, encompassing the Refuge within 3500 square miles. Seven days later, the first atomic bomb exploded on the northern edge of the military testing site. In a fortuitous quirk of isolation, the Refuge was now surrounded by a huge tract of land, with no public visitation or livestock. The bighorns flourished. The military never used the ground, just the air space, and the sheep eventually habituated to the screeching sounds of jets and missile launches.
By the mid-1960s the herd grew to over 200 sheep. Yet living on an island has its limitations, even with those high levels of protections from human interference. Island populations are subject to genetic drift, disease outbreaks, forage decline and weather changes. Within the next ten years, by 1979 the herd crashed to around eighty animals and kept declining from there. By the time ewe 067 was born in 1989, only about 35 bighorns comprised her herd. The culprit of the crash was determined to be a scabies-mite infestation, its origin a mystery, but the main suspect of transmission was domestic goats and sheep. Scabies causes incessant itching, hair loss, ear drum damage, loss of hearing and upset equilibrium. The scabies left the sheep vulnerable to contagious ecthyma, a viral disease that causes scabby lesions on the mouth and can lead to blindness, lameness, impaired feeding and starvation. This disease complex, if it didn’t kill a sheep outright, predisposes them to death by other causes such as predation, bacterial infections, falls from precipices.
Now in the winter of 1996, seven year old ewe 067 ran for cover from the helicopter. Meanwhile, two other choppers were also surveying the Refuge. In 15 hours of survey time, not one sheep was observed. The following year the concerted effort was repeated, but this time 067 was on a naked bluff. She was captured, collared and treated for scabies. San Andres ewe 067, the lone remaining native desert bighorn in the Chihuahuan desert, now became known nationwide as “the last ewe.”
067 was born on an isolated protected perch with a wide view. Her mother probably sought out rugged terrain for protection from lions, eagles and coyotes. As the ewe dropped her newborn, an intensive study on mountain lions was taking place within her home range. From 1986 through 1996, Kenneth Logan and Linda Sweanor collared, followed, and documented mountain lions in the Refuge. Bighorn sheep had been listed by the state of New Mexico as endangered in 1980, so although their focus was mountain lions, they agreed to include sheep predation monitoring as well. During the years of the study, the mule deer thrived, so lion kills were mostly opportunistic and compensatory. Of forty-three collared sheep during their ten year tenure, twenty-six died, ten from lion kills. Yet after the study was completed, the mule deer population crashed, and mountain lions were hunting farther and wider for food. With the added predation, along with a small, weakened diseased population, all the sheep disappeared.
All but our last ewe. Ewe 067 watched sheep around her drop, get eaten by lions, or fall off cliffs while she found safe areas to forage. For two years 067 lived alone. For a herd animal, she must have become extra vigilant. Ewes in particular like to live high, combing for good escape habitat, a survival instinct honed to protect their lambs. Sheep have excellent vision. Even at ten years of age, hers must have been highly acute.
Ewe 067 never had much luck with humans. Now easily located with a telemetry collar, during her third capture in 1999 she was placed in a paddock by a guzzler for a week. Bashing her horns against the enclosure, she broke one off.
Possibly 067’s luck with humans was about to change. New Mexico Game and Fish was beginning a new bighorn sheep transplant program. The Refuge with its historical evidence of a large herd of sheep was on its radar to be next. Yet the scabies transmission was scaring them. How was it communicated—did it stay in the soil? Was it through direct contact? A test was devised to see if the Refuge was safe. The NMDGF brought in six “Sentinel” rams in 1999 from Red Rock Wildlife Refuge, a 1,250-acre fenced enclosure in southwest New Mexico where they were raising bighorn sheep for seed stock. The rams were sprinkled on various ranges, used as canary-in-the-coal-mine sheep. They waited two years to see if they died. When all the Sentinels lived, additional transplants were brought in from Red Rock, along with sheep from the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. Between 2001 and 2005, fifty more sheep were brought in from Kofa along with a few more from Red Rock.
Three years after her capture in the paddock, 067 was spotted with a lamb. One of the Sentinel rams had found her. At thirteen, this feisty survivor had birthed again. She beat scabies, lions, capture, and the terrible fate of aloneness for a herd animal dependent on others.
“Hintza, come!” I’m keeping my ten-month-old golden retriever close. We’re walking dry washes in the southern New Mexico Chihuahuan desert, looking for mule deer, and I just spotted some javelinas on a nearby scrubby slope. Javelinas don’t like dogs and have been known to kill them. Really, Lindsay Smythe, my hiking partner, is doing most of the work. I’m just tagging along, holding my recorder out, navigating around creosote bushes and rocky terrain trying to keep up and corral the pup. Smythe is the San Andres Wildlife Refuge manager, here helping her friend and fellow lead biologist Ron Thompson on this four-day project. Smythe points out what javelina scat looks like. “Kind of like cattle droppings.” It’s everywhere now that I recognize it. Seeing Hintza, the javelinas deposit some fresh scat to confirm.
I was invited to spend a few days on Ted Turner’s Armendaris Ranch with a small team of biologists as they completed an annual deer survey. The Armendaris, a desert property bordering the Rio Grande by Elephant Butte Reservoir, is over 350 acres of untouched land Turner has reserved for wildlife. It’s impressive and vast private land that stretches across the desert basin east to the San Andres, encompassing the Jornada del Muerto, a name given to the basin by the Spanish for its waterless expanse. The Fra Cristobal mountains hug the reservoir and western edge of the basin. They’re a small range, not terribly high, but their classic crags and high mesas are good sheep habitat, though it’s debatable whether they ever held sheep historically. Looking east, the San Andres appear far in the distance, a long wall of mountains. To the south, much closer, lie the less formidable Caballo mountains, shrouded in clouds suspended above the desert floor.
I’m actually here at the invitation of Ron Thompson, big cat biologist. These days Thompson mainly spends his time on jaguars in Mexico as president of the Primero Conservation nonprofit. But he still continues his contract work for the Turner Endangered Species Fund. He helped restore these bighorn sheep and continues research here on adaptive mountain lion management strategies, his most recent being water. It was through his work collaring lions on the Kofa that he met Smythe.
Deer, being the primary lion food, it’s important to keep tabs on how they are doing with an annual study. Deer health bodes well for sheep longevity. The summer of 2020 was especially hard on all wildlife. The monsoons never arrived. Thompson tells me forage on the ranch is in poor shape.
“The habitat is private land and so the ranch manager is responsible for maintaining healthy habitat. It’s not healthy now. We’re in a drought and the main browse component is way overused. I’m telling him your plants are dying. And the deer are declining because of the competition.”
Thompson points me to a nearby hillside where a series of lines demarcate the slope.
“That’s from desert sheep going back and forth. That used to be all grass. It’s been denuded. All been eaten and the sheep aren’t there anymore. Those are the visual impacts I’ve seen in twenty years of being here. But you can’t just come here, look at the mountain, and say, where are the sheep. They’re here and they continue to have an impact.”
Thompson says the deer fawn recruitment is down 10%. That’s why he’s brought this small team to comb, section by section, the Fra Cristobal range. Today, Smythe and I observe one buck, one set of coyote tracks, and several dozen javelina. The sheep are higher up so we don’t expect to see them on this route. Smythe tells me the lower area of the mountain is poor deer country so she’s not surprised at our limited success.
Smythe is the perfect person to discuss sheep and lions with. She’s been the sole biologist and manager of the Refuge for two years. Before that she worked at Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, and at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge (DNWR) near Las Vegas, another sheep refuge surrounded by Nellis Airforce base. Kofa is the main supplier of desert bighorn transplants for Arizona with currently over 900 sheep. The DNWR has 900 sheep.
Kofa National Wildlife Refuge had a precipitous drop in their sheep population in the early 2000s, from over 800 animals to 400. This was before any awareness of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. Since Kofa was providing the majority of the sheep transplants throughout Arizona, alarm bells went off. Meanwhile, for years Kofa had been developing more and more artificial water sources specifically for sheep. In fact, the increase was phenomenal. Arizona had 750 managed waters in 1997 for wildlife. By 2019, the state was managing over 3,000. It was through trail cameras set at water developments in the Kofa that managers noticed an increase of mountain lions.
“In that portion of the state, southwestern Arizona, it had very low to no mountain lions historically. A mountain lion might come through, be seen, but it wasn’t a regular occurrence.” Amber Munig, big game program management supervisor for Arizona Game and Fish tells me.
“And we had relatively no mountain lion harvests in that portion of the state for decades. We started to see mountain lions in there, and at one point we had over 14 mountain lions within the Kofa complex itself.”
Arizona Game and Fish sprang into action. Sensitive to public opinion, the Agency created a mountain lion predation management plan. They collared sheep and every mountain lion they could snare. The policy said that if a mountain lion killed two sheep within a six-month period, that lion was removed. If it only killed one, it was left alone, or if it was two outside of the six months, then it went free.
“We had this very strict approach for dealing with mountain lions killing bighorn sheep.” Munig says.
Smythe’s employment from 2005 through 2011 at the Kofa coincided with the sheep drop. She helped push for control limits in their management plan. The idea was the plan would target any lions that showed a clear affinity for killing sheep.
“My opinion is that a lot of the declines (at Kofa) attributed to predation—the real root cause was disease. For a long time we weren’t testing for it at all. When I was at Kofa we had six mountain lions collared, and there were definitely some males that killed a lot of sheep. There was one that killed six sheep within the span of a few months. But the problem is every time you had a mountain lion kill sheep, it was killed. No one has ever left mountain lions collared long enough to really understand the interaction very well. Everybody starts panicking, and that’s what happened in our lion study at Kofa.”
Smythe explains that “the intent was to kill offending lions that had really learned how to target bighorn sheep. But it turned out that all the lions met that criteria very quickly and so they ended up killing all of them.” It’s the rare mountain lion that actually shows a clear preference for one prey or another. Usually, it’s an opportunistic kill while hunting for their preferred prey, deer. In Logan and Sweanor’s study only one lion in ten years demonstrated a clear affinity for sheep. He was removed.
Kofa’s predation management plan area was vast. The borders were delineated at highway 35 to the east, i-10 to the north, i-8 as the southern boundary, and west to the California border. The argument was “you can’t just kill lions in the mountain range because lions migrate in from other places.” So dispersers were killed too. Because it takes ten to fifteen years for a herd to rebound from a disease epidemic, it might have eventually cycled out of the infection on its own. It may have happened faster with lion removal, but, as Smythe reiterates, “the problem is they never do research. Everybody starts to panic and the lions always end up losing.”
The Plan did have a shut off valve. When the population reached 800, mountain lion killing would end. In 2019 that target population was reached, with over 900 animals in the Kofa, thus ending lion culling, a good fifteen years since the plan’s inception. The AZGF is still monitoring the collared lions for data purposes, but there is no longer removal of lions.
As we circle around an enormous obstacle of prickly pear cactus, Smythe argues that if every lion is killed in a treatment area, “they have no way of knowing if that’s what caused the rebound or not.”
Smythe reminds me that in 2002, twenty sheep were imported into San Andres from the Kofa herd, and another thirty in 2005.
“We know the Kofa decline was caused by disease because when they transplanted the bighorns from Kofa to San Andres, they all came down with Mycoplasma. When we tested them, we strain-typed it, and it’s the same strain. It is the Kofa strain that killed my sheep. All these declines that we’ve had were more than likely disease. Predation may have compounded that.”
Lions, like wolves, are good at sensing the weak and sick in a herd. Compromised animals are easier prey than healthy. An entire herd of sick animals may be like an open market for a lion.
Smythe feels the models for sheep management may be in the San Andres and Desert National Wildlife Refuge. The DNWR has never had lion management, yet they’ve also had deep disease dips along with rebounds. The San Andres did have a period of state lion controls when the animals were listed as state endangered and reintroduced into the Refuge in the 2000s. An environmental assessment was done and offending lions were to be removed. Over a ten year period around thirty lions were culled. But that plan sunsetted and there hasn’t been any active lion removal since. With the last visual aerial count at 170 animals, the Refuge population is doing fine, probably around carrying capacity.
Smythe’s recount of no testing going on during the Kofa decline is accurate. Arizona came particularly late into the disease monitoring game, probably starting only eight years ago. Yet during the early 2000s this was the situation throughout the West. Sheep biologists had been chasing sheep diseases for decades, but the science wasn’t there yet. Everything was cultured, which is unreliable for identifying and differentiating finicky pathogens.
“We were clueless,” Mike Cox of Nevada Department of Wildlife told me. “We didn’t want to be clueless but we didn’t have the science behind it. We didn’t have any money. Nobody cared. There’re no huge grants working on bighorns. We were blind of what was really causing the issue, just a lot of ideas and theories…It was a big circle-jerk for decades.”
In 2009, more than 2,000 bighorn died throughout the Western states.
“No one understood what was going on. People were thinking it was sunspots,” Cox told me, joking to emphasize how blindsided sheep biologists were.
Finally, a breakthrough occurred in the lab. Thomas Besser, a clinical veterinarian pathologist from Washington State University along with a few others, were able to isolate and identify the ringleader of sheep bacteria, Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. Although there are several other bacteria living dormant in sheep, with their defense mechanisms intact, they can fight those off. But Mycoplasma destroys those immunities.
All this was happening sight unseen in the Kofa sheep die-off in the early 2000s. Now, in retrospect, game agencies can look back and see the real culprit.
Amber Munig pieced it out for me. “What we believe happened is that we had a disease episode that went through the Kofas which affected lamb recruitment and probably an all age class die-off. At the same time, we were seeing some expansion of mountain lions, some from south and some from east. We don’t know exactly why. Our deer and javelina populations were relatively stable at that time.”
“We had predation increasing, something we hadn’t had in the past for this population, occurring when the population was depressed. With our predation management and time allowing animals to clear any pathogens that were holding on within the population, it allowed for that population to recover. I think it was a combination of time and our very focused effort to not allow predation to keep suppressing that population.”
Yet the question still remains as to why the lion population in the Kofa complex increased from almost zero to fourteen animals. Ron Thompson has thoughts on the answer. Along with several other researchers, Thompson conducted a simple, yet elegant long-term study placing camera traps at water catchments spanning all three southwest deserts—Mohave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan—including traps in the Kofa. Using data collected over years, the study revealed bighorn sheep using water catchments at limited times of the year, specifically the driest, hottest season. In the Sonoran Desert, where the Kofa traps were located, 85% of all desert bighorn sheep visits occurred during May through August. Bighorns have been evolutionarily adapted to get their water from their food. In the winter, they can kick barrel cacti over and chew the pulp. Predators on the other hand, need year-round water sources. Thompson found “desert bighorn sheep concentrated their visits to water within 4-5 summer months across all 3 deserts. Mountain lions visited water year-round in the Chihuahuan and Mojave deserts, and generally year-round in the Sonoran.”
The research concluded that “managed waters allow populations of desert bighorn sheep to inhabit areas they previously had not. Indeed, this outcome forms justification of managing waters for desert bighorn sheep. It follows that managed waters could enable mountain lions to inhabit locations they previously had not…”
Thompson reminds me to “keep this association in mind”—the increase in the number of photos of lions at water developments in the Kofa. “That,” meaning the lion numbers increase he says, “was suspected as the smoking gun cause for the decline.”
Day two of the mule deer survey I’m out on my own with Hintza. I suppose the researchers feel I’ve gotten the hang of walking and looking for deer. I’m combing a long wide wash that runs through a deep ravine. Two others are hiking the high ridges above. I’m assigned to not only look for deer, but scout for lion tracks. Before I set out, Thompson checked a trail camera located on a water source pinch point here. No lions had come by.
Although it hasn’t rained for weeks, maybe months, a tiny spring emerges through the rough rocks to fill a sandy hole. Hintza gets to quench his thirst. I see javelina tracks everywhere along the sandy bottoms. They resemble small versions of deer tracks set closer together in stride. A few deer tracks but none in the flesh appear. A large lizard suns itself on the hot rocks.
The canyon is stark and beautiful, with gleaming bare stone along the base, sparse desert plants as the hillsides rise steeply above. I’m a plantofile, though unfamiliar with New Mexico, I don’t know many of these plants. I pause to admire a Dasylirion as it is unfurling. Sometimes mistaken for a yucca but they are unrelated. I know it from my days as a landscape designer in Northern California.
At one point I spot Thompson’s son who is assisting with the study. A small speck walking along the high rims, sky lining like a bighorn sheep. The canyon opens and ends at a water development with a rough dirt road leading to it. My assignment is to keep walking up the road and connect to another dirt road where we’ll all meet. As I’ve heard so much about water catchments during my time in the southwest, I spend time studying how this one works.
Unfortunately, for the bighorn, the story does not end with water developments, predator controls, or the recent uncovering of Mycoplasma as their vulnerability to respiratory infection. The beat goes on and we just do not know how to stop it.
Thompson told me over last night’s dinner how he has applied the data from his research. The idea was to allow sheep and deer to drink, but not lions. Sheep and deer have narrow faces, lions have round faces. Those face measurements are known to any researcher. But how long is a lion’s tongue? A key question for a cat that can lap through bars. Since Thompson spends lots of time capturing and collaring lions, it was just one additional measurement. The design he came up with was a trough with pipe laid vertically just wide enough for a lean sheep nose, and water depth just below a lion’s tongue reach. Water for thirsty deer and sheep, yet a deterrent for lions in waterless country. If water isn’t available, lions and other predators will have to search far and wide, leaving the sheep, who are less water-dependent, alone.
That predators kill prey is the simplest of biological equivalents, known to any high-schooler. But the intricate dance of nature is a puzzle that humans have difficulty teasing out even absent our interference. Yet nature has been so tinkered with, trampled on, and altered by humans, that when one adds our own unintended consequences to the fluidity of natural factors like climate, habitat, and disease, sorting out cause becomes a veritable soup. To save an animal from extinction, we now find it necessary to trade wildness for rescue interventions.
There’s so much more to this story. Stay tuned for Part III