A coalition of agencies released a dozen endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep at Yosemite National Park late last week as part of a project to buck up the population.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife; Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon national parks; Inyo National Forest; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked together on the operation in the Sierra mountain range.
The effort began Thursday and continued through the weekend as crew members moved nine ewes and three rams from the Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park to the Cathedral Range of mountains in Yosemite. An operation to bring 10 others to Sequoia National Park continued Monday, according to parks officials.
“This is a legacy event for Yosemite National Park and the bighorn sheep,” Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher said in a news release.
The Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep is the only federally listed endangered mammal in Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, according to officials. By 2000, the sheep population had plunged to an estimated 100 animals from the thousands that roamed the area before white settlers came to the region, according to officials.
The population has since increased to more than 600, parks officials said, which marks an important milestone towards the species’s recovery.
Veterinarians, biologists, volunteers and other staff members accompanied the animals to assess their health as they were moved from the federally managed national forest to their new homes. The animals have been fitted with collars so they can be tracked in the coming years.
“With this week’s reintroductions, we now have bighorn distributed throughout all geographic areas identified as critical habitat in the recovery plan,” program leader Tom Stephenson said in the release.
Crews released the sheep into areas historically inhabited by the species. Officials said the area could be ideal for the animals as they feed and run into other sheep herds.
Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are known for their size, strength and ability to negotiate steep terrain, officials said. Adult males, or rams, stand more than 3 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 220 pounds; females, called ewes, reach 155 pounds.
Rams and ewes have permanent horns, though the rams’ horns are massive and coiled compared with the shorter-horned ewes. Rams live about a dozen years, while ewes typically reach 12 to 17 years.
During breeding season, bighorn rams kick, butt and wrestle for dominance but are perhaps best known for their dramatic horn clashes. Starting at 2 years old, ewes give birth to one lamb each spring. The lambs become independent of their mothers at about a year.
The Yosemite Conservancy paid for the experts and equipment needed to move the animals to Yosemite, as well as the collars to track them. For 20 years, the Yosemite Conservancy has paid nearly $630,000 to help protect bighorn sheep, according to a news release. The Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation and the Wild Sheep Foundation funded the move to Sequoia National Park.
“Bighorn sheep are a true symbol of wilderness and represent the need to protect wildlands,” Yosemite Conservancy President Frank Dean said in a news release. “With the reintroduction, visitors will experience a wilderness similar to that found in the days of John Muir, when large alpine wildlife was abundant.”
Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or email@example.com.