The cost of the bighorn comeback


In California’s Eastern Sierra, bringing back bighorn has meant killing more mountain lions.

Standing in the middle of an icy trail on a bright December day, Tom Stephenson sweeps an H-shaped antenna overhead, searching for something he already knows is there. Through the blizzard of static on his handheld speaker, faint beeps confirm that a herd of bighorn sheep wearing telemetry collars hides somewhere in this valley on the eastern edge of California’s Sierra Nevada. But spotting the buff-colored ungulates can be tricky.

“There’s an element of luck to it,” says Stephenson, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. A rangy man with graying blond hair, he squints through binoculars at a craggy slope draped in morning shadows and snow. It’s a challenging backdrop even for Stephenson, who leads the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program.

Like other bighorn populations across the West, Sierra bighorn were nearly wiped out after European settlers arrived in California, bringing domestic sheep that introduced virulent diseases. By the mid-1990s, scarcely more than 100 bighorn remained — just 10 percent of historic estimates. So the state launched the recovery program in a desperate bid to save this unique subspecies.

Read the full story in High Country News.

Bighorn through scope
Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep graze high in McGee Creek in the Eastern Sierra. (Credit: Julia Rosen)